[Currents headergraphic]

July 5, 1999

Supermax prisons: Are they the answer?

By Jennifer McNulty

Designed to hold the worst, most violent criminals, supermaximum security prisons are the end of the line for criminals like Timothy McVeigh and Theodore Kaczynski. "Supermax" facilities boast conditions in which inmates are kept in solitary confinement virtually around the clock.

These prisons, including California's notorious Pelican Bay, confine lesser-known felons who belong to prison gangs, and they hold those who have killed fellow inmates or prison guards. The heinous nature of these crimes begs the question: Is it possible to punish such criminals too harshly?

Yes, says UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney.
[Photo of Craig Haney]
Craig Haney

Long-term solitary confinement at supermax prisons can have devastating psychological effects, says Haney, who has spent much of his career studying the psychological aspects of prison incarceration. He has studied the reactions of prisoners to supermax conditions in more than a dozen states.

Conditions in these prisons are severe: Inmates typically spend 23 hours--or more--a day in solitary confinement. Their meals are shoved through slots in solid-steel cell doors to their cells. They rarely, if ever, interact with or touch another human being while in supermax. Often they are deprived of reading materials, education, and recreation--even commissary items like deodorant.

And they often stay there for years on end.

These conditions are so destructive for some prisoners, including those who entered supermax units without pre-existing psychiatric problems, that they suffer long-term psychological disorders.

Prison officials argue that such conditions are needed to control the nation's most violent and dangerous career criminals, many of whom are members of prison gangs. Serving decades-long sentences, these inmates have little to lose and therefore require the most extreme confinement, they say.

But the courts do not all agree.

Haney's expertise recently proved critical in a landmark case challenging the constitutionality of supermax conditions in Texas prisons.

In Ruiz v. Johnson, Federal District Court Judge William Wayne Justice became the first judge in the country to declare such supermax conditions unconstitutional.

Haney testified that the level of despair among inmates in Texas's administrative segregation and supermax units was "unparalleled in my experience." He went on to testify that conditions in these facilities "were as bad or worse than any I've seen."

He described visits in which he observed inmates who had smeared themselves with feces, and others who were incoherent, babbling, shrieking, banging their hands on the walls, or begging for help.

The judge's opinion relied heavily on Haney's testimony in his landmark ruling that the extreme levels of psychological deprivation imposed were cruel and unusual. Justice noted that the "most compelling testimony" on the "appalling" conditions in the prison units came from Haney, whom Justice referred to as "perhaps the nation's leading expert in the area of penal institution psychology."

Haney's testimony followed his inspection of a number of Texas facilities and interviews with Texas prisoners and staff members. Among the symptoms experienced by inmates confined under supermax conditions are lethargy, depression, memory loss, loss of concentration, severe panic attacks, and uncontrollable rage triggered by insignificant things.

"This was an extremely important case because it brought constitutional principles to bear on a new and potentially very harmful form of imprisonment," Haney said of the Texas decision.

Haney also notes that only some of the prisoners in supermax fit the public's image of them.

"Many supermax prisoners have gotten into trouble because they are mentally ill," he said. "Since many prison systems lack adequate mental health care for prisoners, disturbed inmates are too often thrown into solitary confinement, where their problems just get worse."

And even in the case of gang members, their prison behavior rarely justifies such extreme punishment.

"Remember, most of these people are going to come out of prison someday," said Haney. "It should matter to society what state of mind they are in when they do."

He and other critics of the supermax model urge prison officials to attend to the individual needs of inmates rather than investing so heavily in high-tech prison facilities.

Haney is the author of the forthcoming book, "Limits to Prison Pain," to be published later this year by the American Psychological Association. His work assessing the psychological effects of confinement in supermax prisons around the country, including a recently published 100-page law review article on "Regulating Prisons of the Future," has generated considerable media attention. In the past few months, he has been interviewed by the Capital Times, CBS News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Houston Chronicle, New York Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Savannah (GA) Morning News, the Tucson Weekly, the Washington Post, Civic.com, and the Village Voice.

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