An American Gulag: Indiana's Super-Max Prisons


It's like reliving slavery all over again. Every day I am here, I am being dehumanized. The SHU is a modern day Auschwitz where the guards walk around in dark-colored fatigues and combat boots with 24" batons, and plot and plan how to control every facet of your existence, to bring about your mental and physical demise...Every act is an act to deny you your humanity.

--Balagoon, man imprisoned at Secured Housing Unit since August 1996


Locked in a dull colored cell for at least 23 hours daily, unescapable lights, no human contact, besieged with dozens of petty regulations, subject to "arbitrary and excessive use of force by guards". This is the wretched life facing men imprisoned, sometimes for many years, in the Maximum Control Facility (MCF) in Westville and the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana's two super-maximum security prisons. Conditions in these institutions are again under increased scrutiny following the October 1997 release of a damning report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an internationally respected human rights organization.

Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana details "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" experienced by men in these prisons. HRW concluded that the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) has violated provisions of "the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners" as well as the ban against "cruel and unusual" punishment in the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The report underscores the criticisms which began soon after the opening of the MCF in April 1991.

Within a few months nearly half of the prisoners launched a hunger strike to protest "harsh conditions, frequent beatings, and other abuses." This was the first of many such nonviolent protest actions by prisoners. Given their repressive confinement, fasting is one of the only modes of struggle available. In a move designed to further dramatize the desperation of their plight, Kataza Taifa , frustrated at the lack of response to the first hunger strike, severed his fingertip and sent it to the American Civil Liberties Union. In May 1992, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit on behalf of inmates. The resulting 1994 Consent Decree was an early step in correcting some of the worst abuses at the MCF.


How Did We Get Here?

While the use of extended solitary confinement dates to the early 19th century, the history of super-maximum security prisons begins with Alcatraz, the island prison in San Francisco Bay made famous by "The Birdman." The rebirth of this repressive penal approach began in the 1970s with the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Since then 57 such prisons have been built by 36 states and the federal government.

"What distinguishes this new generation of super-maximum security facilities are the increasingly long terms which prisoners spend in them, their use as a management tool rather than just for disciplinary purposes, and their high-technology methods of enforcing social isolation," wrote HRW.

They and other critics credit the IDOC with improving on some of the worst abuses, though these changes came only after prisoner protests, lawsuits and citizen pressure. IDOC Commissioner Edward Cohn contends that the harsh conditions of isolation are necessary for "the most disruptive, violent, and unmanageable persons housed with the Department." Men in these prisons have been accused of fighting, hurling urine and feces at guards and other prisoners and self-mutilation. No prisoners are directly sentenced to these prisons because of the savagery of their original crime, but instead are transferred here after "disciplinary infractions" at other prisons.


Physical Surroundings

While the specifics vary between the two prisons, inmates are basically locked in their cells for at least 23 hours daily. Their concrete enclosures, called "tombs" by some, are approximately 80 square feet and contain a concrete slab bed, desk or table and a sink and toilet. MCF cells have a tiny window and solid doors, while the SHU has no windows and "honey-combed grate" doors which allow in a trickle light. Some SHU cell doors have special plastic covers to prevent inmates from throwing anything out of the cell. Dim lights are kept on around the clock.

The prisons are "cold, hard and austere" writes HRW, with "a dull sameness in design and color." Critics of similar prisons have labeled them "sensory deprivation" facilities. Correctional officers are stationed in raised control rooms which look down on the housing areas. Each "pod", as they're called, contains cells, showers, a recreation area, a medical examining room and counseling room(s). This allows the prison to limit inmate movement. Video cameras and electronically-controlled gates reduce interactions between guards and inmates.

The arrangement of the cells prevents prisoners from seeing one another from their cells. At SHU, the grates in the doors make it easier for men to yell to one another, allowing for minimal communication, though the yelling bounces off the concrete surfaces creating a terrible din. They eat alone from trays distributed to their cells through a small slot by the guards.


A Day in the Life

"Every time a prisoner on the SHU leaves his assigned cell, he is placed in handcuffs (behind his back), with a lead strap (dog leash) held by a guard," writes Balagoon matter of factly. Before the cell door is opened, the prisoner puts his hands through a slot for handcuffing. For trips outside the pod prisoners are also shackled at the legs. At SHU, a recent reform allows movement of some inmates without handcuffing.

Carp, the pen name of a man who began working in the educational program at Wabash Valley in September 1997, describes his reaction to seeing the conditions first hand, "I went into the B-East Supermax today. I'm sick as hell to my stomach and ready to cry." HRW charactized the life of men in the super-maxes thus, "prisoners experience extraordinary social isolation, unremitting idleness, and few educational or vocational opportunities."

Recreation, again alone, occurs in small areas designed to make escape impossible. This also means that there is little sense of contact with the natural world. "Wells", "oversized cells" and "dog runs" are the way that various prisoners have described the areas which contain some exercise equipment. Recreation is generally permitted for a half hour to an hour daily, though at the SHU recreation is cancelled during inclement weather. In response to continued pressure, the IDOC is now considering group recreation for some inmates.

Ventilation in both prisons is poor, and, in Balagoon's words, "there is something terribly wrong with the water." Food is prepared elsewhere and reheated at the facility. While the institutional guidelines outline reasonable procedures for access to medical care, prisoners regularly complain that treatment is inadequate and slow in coming.

Contact with the outside world is severely limited for men at the SHU and MCF. Visits take place in a small cubicle with the handcuffed and shackled inmate separated from visitors by plexiglass. They talk via telephone, and can make no physical contact. Daily visits are allowed to MCF prisoners, who also have regular access to telephones. At the SHU visits are allowed only once every 14 days and phone calls twice monthly. All phone calls must be collect, making them very expensive for the recipients. These constraints make it difficult for the men to maintain connections with people on the outside, deepening their isolation.

The first Superintendent at MCF, Charles Wright, "encouraged and condoned the unnecessary excessive use of physical force," according to Human Rights Watch. Wright, who left the post in mid-1995, "pursued his vision of total control with a single-minded and lawless intensity: beating prisoners into submission on the slightest pretext or provocation... Our research indicates that the misuse of force was rampant in the early years of both facilities, but especially so at the MCF." While HRW believes that improvements have been made, "prisoners at the SHU continue to voice complaints about excessively brutal cell extractions and other incidents of violence."

"Cell extraction" is the term for the forcible removal of a prisoner from a cell. At both facilities teams of "at least five correctional officers wearing body armor, helmets with visors, neck supports, and heavy leather gloves" carry out the removals. While there may be times when such an extreme measure appears to be the only option, in the past it was the method of first resort, with as many as eight per day occurring at the MCF.

In other situations, men are strapped down on their beds to immobilize them. These "four-point restraints" are designed for situations when inmates are suicidal or an imminent threat. Although guidelines are very specific about when and how this measure is to be utilized, its abuse, though perhaps not as extreme as under Wright's tenure at MCF, continues. Mace, teargas and beatings have also been carried out by guards at both facilities.

One inmate told HRW, "When guards only see you in a cage or at the end of a chain, they just can't relate to you as a person." This statement underscores the tense relations between guards and inmates in these institutions. Racism is a significant part of that tension at the SHU in southern Indiana where the guards are overwhelmingly white and African-Americans make up a significant proportion of the prisoners. At MCF, however, the staff is more racially diverse. Racial animosity between prisoners adds to the tremendous stress of life in these institutions.


How Dangerous Are They?

One of the biggest concerns raised about the super-maxes is the length of time which some men are confined in them. IDOC regulations have kept prisoners at MCF for a minimum of two years, and three years at SHU. HRW found at least three prisoners who had been at MCF since it first opened. These lengths of time, in conditions described by some as "sensory deprivation", may be far too long. The American Correctional Association characterizes isolation for "excessively long periods" as "damaging to human beings and counterproductive as a safety measure." Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who has extensively studied solitary confinement, says it "can cause severe psychiatric harm." Federal Judge Thelton Henderson, whose landmark ruling condemned the infamous Pelican Bay prison in California, concluded that prolonged solitary confinement "may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate."

After assessing the DOC's criteria for placing men in these prisons, HRW was "unconvinced that the criteria and procedures employed in selecting prisoners for placement in these facilities actually separate out those prisoners in need of such extraordinary control measures." In fact, under the rules, a prisoner convicted of a minor crime could end up in a super-max because of violating a variety of prison rules which endangered or threatened no one!

The due process safeguards in the civilian court system are denied to inmates charged with violating the disciplinary code in prison. When the consequences of these hearings are so severe, it is easy to understand why inmates clamor for greater safeguards.


Mentally Ill Inmates

"Absolutely atrocious by any standard," is the way one psychologist described the care provided to the mentally ill in Indiana's prisons to The Times of Munster, Indiana. Up to half the inmates incarcerated at the SHU suffer from mental illness. These men are particularly vulnerable to the crushing effects of solitary confinement. Placing mentally ill or vulnerable people in these conditions is "the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe," wrote Judge Henderson . A psychotic inmate at SHU told HRW's psychiatrists that he mutilates himself because "the opportunity to be taken out of his cell for medical attention, even if only temporary, was worth the pain."

Unfortunately, the only mental health services available to them are drugs. The presence of so many mentally ill prisoners not only causes great pain for them, but also makes the confinement more difficult for the other inmates. Nearly all the prisoners who speak out from inside the control units highlight the plight of their mentally ill brothers. These mentally ill inmates, whose behavior is at times irrational, often suffer the worst physical abuse by guards.



While the prisons cite security as the justification for these quarantine-like conditions, some of the men experiencing it see a very different motive. Balagoon, who has been imprisoned at SHU since August 1996, describes it as, "controlling and manipulating body, mind and environment to bring about a desired result of self-destructability or total passivity in all targeted subjects... The SHU is responsible for the destruction of a lot of prisoners health mentally and physically."

Aliasi Khalfani Salim, another man imprisoned at the SHU, says "retaliatory cell strips, macing, direct threats, physical attacks and intimidation become the tools by which fear is projected onto many prisoners." Many African-American prisoners insist that their efforts to improve prison conditions and expose the racism of the criminal justice system lead to their punishment in the super-maxes. "I am being persecuted because of my social, political, religious and moral views," says Balagoon.

Most of the men confined in these facilities will eventually be released. Their experiences while imprisoned not only provide them with few, if any, tools to help them function effectively in society, but for many has embittered them in frightening ways. The psychological scars they carry greatly increase the possibility that they will carry out future acts of violence. "People will be twice or three times as bad when they are released from these facilities," says State Representative Charlie Brown of Gary, one of the few critics of the super-maxes in the state legislature.

There is no transition for inmates whose sentences expire at the MCF or SHU. They are given no opportunity to interact with other inmates or live in a less restrictive environment. Men who have been incarcerated for long periods of time in ordinary prisons have a difficult adjustment on their hands. Releasing men directly from such isolation is asking them to accomplish a nearly impossible task.

Carp was told that "each year 80 inmates are released right from super-max onto the streets." While HRW knows of no studies of what happens with such men, there is strong anecdotal evidence that the results are deadly.


Activists Making Headway

The Northwest Indiana Coalition to Abolish Control Unit Prisons is leading efforts to improve the quality of life for the 400 men in these prisons. Mary Mulligan, a member of the Coalition and activist for prisoner rights, describes their goal as "abolishing control units. We hope what we're doing will keep future control units from coming into existence, both in Indiana and around the country. In the meantime, we're working to make the SHU and MCF more humane."

In a September 27 meeting with IDOC Commissioner Cohn, the Coalition achieved several important agreements, including:

· Increasing recreation time to an hour at the SHU, and offering small group recreation for some inmates.

· Review of disciplinary procedures.

· Liberalizing a number of policies at the SHU to bring them to at least the same level as those mandated for the MCF by the 1994 court agreement.

· Increased access to the law library at both facilities.

However, the IDOC was unwilling to make commitments on the Coalition's requests to prohibit confinement beyond one year in these facilities, better promote rehabilitation, improve the physical facilities and increase interaction among the inmates. Mulligan hopes "that IDOC works with us to address the issues needed to make the prisons more humane and just, and treating all people with dignity." However, she is concerned that IDOC "may attempt to prolong the existing situation," and sees "continuing monitoring and follow-up as a priority" to prevent this.

It is highly unlikely that the increased funding needed to make facilities at the two units more tolerable will be considered in this year's "short session" of the state legislature. Despite some of the gains, Assemblyman Brown remains "disturbed at the racial composition of those in charge versus those incarcerated. There is a need for diversity training and sensitivity training for guards and other personnel." However, he sees little chance of positive legislative action without significant public pressure, given the "dominant attitude to lock them up and throw away the key."

Strong leadership from the IDOC is necessary to stop the sort of abuse which has characterized the control units from their birth. HRW wrote, "without guidance and control by principled authorities, super-maximum security prisons can become as lawless as the prisoners they confine."

The framers of the Indiana State Constitution called for penal laws "founded on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive Justice." It is time for the state to heed that original mandate and transform the control units into places where men can learn skills and prepare to adjust back into society.