Friday, June 22, 2012

The High Cost of (No) SuperMax

Recently NPR featured a story on All Things Considered about the state of Illinois closing its SuperMax prison in Tamms. The story talked about the fact that the prison cost twice as much as other prisons to run, in spite of the fact it housed only 200 prisoners. It mentioned human rights organizations that felt control unit prisons or "SuperMax" facilities were environments that inflicted cruel and unusual punishment. The story implied that longterm solitary confinement caused mental illness and that such prisons did nothing to improve safety in the correctional system.

Wow, I wonder which correctional system they were working in.

I work in a system that at one time had one of the highest internal homicide rates in the country. (Internal homicide refers to murders committed within prison, by prisoners.) I have worked in a control unit prison, and I can tell you that the average citizen can't comprehend the level of depravity shown by some of the inmates there. I'm talking about prisoners who have long histories of violence, dating back to elementary school years. When the New York Times ran a story recently about nine-year-old psychopaths, the first people I thought of were some of my SuperMax inmates.

In my correctional system you have to work to end up in a control unit prison. Beds are few, they are expensive, and they aren't given out like candy. SuperMax inmates are people who are repetitively assaultive to their peers or staff, who repeatedly destroy property or set fires, or who actually kill someone at a lower level of security. Single incidents short of murder are rarely enough to warrant a high security transfer.

Even housing in a control unit prison is not a guarantee of safety: control unit prisoners have continued to run gangs and even to kill in spite of that high security environment.

And now advocacy groups want these facilities closed, and these prisoners turned loose upon their peers in lower security settings. Frankly, if I were a parent of a medium security inmate I would be very concerned about that.

Then there is the allegation of mental deterioration. I've, written...about this topic a few times before here on Shrink Rap and also on Clinical Psychiatry News. Briefly, what advocacy groups don't mention---and their expert consultants also sometimes overlook---is that control unit prisoners are a very disturbed group to begin with, even prior to transfer to the facility. They have severe personality disorders which press the limits of our psychiatric diagnostic criteria. They have maladaptive learned behaviors that seem bizarre to the outsider but serve a clear, logical purpose to those familiar with the correctional environment. In spite of this, recent research has shown that solitary confinement can actually improve rather than worsen this psychological disturbance.

Let's assume for a minute that longterm solitary confinement did have detrimental effects for most prisoners, just for the sake of argument. Most systems do have psychological services in place to address this. Prisoners eligible for longterm solitary can be screened for pre-existing psychiatric conditions, and those conditions can be treated with medication, counselling and behavior management even in a control unit environment. Most SuperMax facilities have policies that require regular rounds on segregation inmates, and psychological services are available.

Abolition of an entire facility is an extreme response to a theoretical problem. The violence posed by control unit inmates, unfortunately, is not theoretical.


Jane said...

I'm gonna post this just because I feel so bad for Brandon. He was not cutting the cat's tail off. In fact, no evidence was ever presented that he has ever physically harmed an animal or a person. I take that back. It was reported that he does physically harm himself.

That kid is most likely not going to end up in SuperMax. He hasn't even been threatened with Juvie.

The real psychopathic kids, who were not shown in the NYT article, may very well end up there.

Ever since reading that article, I have still randomly felt bad for Brandon, so I feel I need to stick up for him.

Zoe Brain said...

What happens though when there's a SuperMax (and it's obvious they're needed, it's not a "nice to have"), but the total number of qualified mental health professionals available for the entire prison system is 9?

None of whom are assigned there. They have two guards with "some mental health training", that's it.

See this link.

ClinkShrink said...

Zoe: Yeah, I saw that and I watched the video of the testimony. I agree with your point: control unit prisons are necessary but they should be adequately staffed. I think that holds true for any correctional facility. If society wants to lock people up, they need to assume the burden of care for their prisoners.

The answer isn't to abolish the facility, the answer is to make the facilty better. That is possible.

Unfortunatately, the only way to do this in the United States is through class action DOJ suits since no taxpayer is going to vote in favor of increased taxes for correctional health care.

The situation is better in the UK where prison health services are all funded through the NHS. The Brit correctional psychiatrists I've talked to are always amazed about how much money we waste on litigation, when it could all go to providing services.

rob lindeman said...

Capital Punishment

Anonymous said...

Had this conversation back in February after Dr Miller had her post she just wrote about in this month's Clinical psychiatry News, and that was why are people getting psych diagnoses in correctional facilities and then dumped in the community mental health system for us to have to be victimized.

And now you worry about these people getting put in less secure prisons? Who are you invested in, your system, or, your community?

Correctional work, and I have done it, briefly mind you as I found it completely pathetic in how devoid of any individuality it considered people's needs and interventions, is almost solely about income first and treatment second.

Frankly, I am appalled you would write the above concern and just basically write off your colleagues in the trenches without secure settings!!!

Anonymous said...

I have worked as a psychiatrist in a supermax (rather not say where) when it first opened. All the psychiatrists employed in the prison system were concerned that it would be used inappropriately, so we were invited to the state capital to hear from someone high up in the Dept of Corrections. S/he assured us that inmates with Axis I diagnoses would not be sent there. S/he lied. Inmates with chronic paranoid schizophrenia were sent there; inmates who had involved corrupt guards in various rule infractions (not involving violence or threat of violence or theft or sexual assault, etc) were sent there. Inmates who had in some way embarrassed DOC were sent there. After publicizing the supermax as a place for the worst of the worst, they employed officers who were fresh off the street from totally unrelated occupations rather than making the jobs attractive enough to attract experienced officers.

There were certainly some bad people there, but DOC had beds to fill, and they filled them with inmates who, by previous practices, would have gone to medium security (or less) in order to keep the folly of the enterprise from coming out. This is the side of supermax prisons that appalls people.

ClinkShrink said...

Anon #1: I'm not sure why you'd take this post to mean that I'm not concerned about safety in community treatment settings. I am. I've talked about it on the blog here and here and here. I think people should be as concerned about security in free society treatment settings as they are concerned about the quality of treatment in corrections.

Anon #2: I agree control unit beds should be reserved for the worst of the worst. I don't think this equates to a need to shut down a facility, though.

Anonymous said...

Currently in this facility there are both maximum security inmates (about 150) and a greater number of minimum security inmates. The maximum security inmates will go to other maximum security facilities and the minimum security in will go to other minimum security facilities. I'm not sure I see the cause for concern.

Zoe Brain said...

From someone on my network:

I wrote this a while ago. The media didn't give a f*ck and buried it, but it involves systemic sexual assault by prison guards of queer people in US prisons...


WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today that it is opening civil investigations into two state correctional institutions (SCI) in Western Pennsylvania. In accordance with the pattern or practice provision of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the department will investigate allegations that SCI Pittsburgh failed to adequately protect prisoners from harm, including from prisoner-on-prisoner and officer-on-prisoner violence and sexual violence, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the department will look into whether SCI Pittsburgh officers systematically targeted prisoners for violence and other abuse based on the prisoners’ race, sexual orientation, gender identity or other status, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The department will also investigate allegations that SCI Cresson provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
This fairly unusual federal intervention is related to this,


The complaint also laid out a "conspiracy to sexually abuse, physically abuse and mentally abuse inmates who were homosexual ... transgender ... [or] who were convicted of sexual crimes."
Another former SCI Pittsburgh inmate, Rodger E. Williams, filed a pro se complaint two months ago, making a slew of complaints about the treatment of transgender inmates like himself at both the Woods Run prison and SCI Greene. Among them: that Mr. Nicoletti raped him, and "doled [him] out to other corrections officers and a [prison] inmate into forcibly committing sexual acts."

In a recent addendum to the complaint Mr. Williams, 32, wrote that he suffered "oral and anal rape" conducted by state corrections officers.

Zoe Brain said...

Mr. Williams' accusations were first reported by the Pittsburgh City Paper.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton declined comment.

In April, news broke that eight guards, including Mr. Nicoletti, had been suspended. Ms. McNaughton would not comment on their status, and leaders of their union could not be reached.

In May, four top SCI Pittsburgh officials were replaced. Ms. McNaughton said they are no longer employed by the department.

Whatever was going on in SCI Pittsburgh, it was really f*cked up and I can guarantee we're going to hear a lot more about this in the coming months. The fact that corrections officers have been suspended for this length of time WITHOUT PAY is highly unusual. We have COs on here, I'm sure they would vouch for that if they wanted to.

That article is dated in regards to criminal charges

The three former officials also claim that the sexual assault investigation began with Niemiec notifying a security captain that an unusually high number of new inmates were asking for the protection of solitary confinement, the lawsuit says.

They spent hours gathering information for investigators and Lockett readily agreed to suspend the eight guards that state investigators identified as participating in or abetting the assaults, the lawsuit says.

"They did everything they could," said Farnan.

The investigation that has led to nearly 100 charges against guard Harry F. Nicoletti, 59, of Coraopolis, including assault, indecent assault, solicitation and terroristic threats related to attacks on more than 20 inmates over the past two years. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said charges against other guards for either sexually assaulting and torturing inmates or failing to intervene in such incidents are likely.


Again, not a surprise to me, and it shouldn't be to any of you, but instead, lots of people want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that this sort of thing is an isolated incident and is totally not reflective of the attitude towards trans people by the legal system / corrections / police.