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 ranted...er, 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.