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Afsc, Prison Inside Prison-control Units, Supermax, Torture, 2003

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The Prison
Inside the Prison:
Control Units,
Supermax Prisons,
and Devices of Torture
by Rachael Kamel and Bonnie Kerness


American Friends Service Committee
Philadelphia 2003

The Prison Inside the Prison: Control Units,
Supermax Prisons, and Devices of Torture
by Rachael Kamel and Bonnie Kerness

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of all those who
commented on this manuscript, including Jamie Bissonette,
Pat Clark, Jamie Fellner, Judy Greene, Tony Heriza, Ojore Lutalo,
Brooke Matschek, Tonya McClary, Mica Root, and Jana Schroeder.

Copyright © 2003 American Friends Service Committee. Permission is granted
to reproduce this material for noncommercial educational use, provided such use
credits the authors and AFSC.

Printed copies of this briefing paper are available from AFSC’s
Community Relations Unit (see address below). It is also available in
downloadable (PDF) format at

Published by

Community Relations Unit
American Friends Service Committee
1501 Cherry Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Management Control Unit.
Controlled Movement Unit.
Departmental Disciplinary Unit.
Secured Housing Unit.
Closed Custody Unit.

At first glance, these bland bureaucratic phrases
may seem unremarkable. For prisoners and people
who are connected with them, on the other hand,
they evoke a profound — and profoundly disturbing — change in the very nature of imprisonment
in the United States: the escalating use of isolation,
through “control units” and “supermax” prisons.

advocates to challenge these abuses. At this writing,
the movement against control units has scored
some significant victories, and many activists
believe the time is ripe for a coordinated national
effort to shut down control units and supermax
prisons altogether.
This issue brief charts the rise of control units,
explaining why AFSC believes they cannot be
reformed but must be completely abolished. It also
offers illustrations of how AFSC is working with
prisoners, their families, concerned community
groups, and activist networks to strengthen the
movement against control units.

The “Marionization” of Imprisonment
IN THE MID-1980s, AFSC’s Prison Watch program,

Traditionally, isolation and lockdown (confining
prisoners to their cells for twenty-three or twentyfour hours a day) have been used as temporary
measures, to punish individual prisoners or control
the prison environment. Over the past twenty years,
however, as these new forms of incarceration have
grown increasingly common, isolation has become a
permanent condition for more and more prisoners.
Along with the multiplication of control units,
prisoners and their advocates have also begun to
report increasingly routine use of devices like stun
belts, stun guns, or restraint chairs.

based in Newark, New Jersey, received a letter from
a prisoner in the Trenton State Prison. He wrote
that he had been placed in a “Management Control
Unit,” which he described as “a prison within a
prison.” Although he had been in and out of prisons
for years, he said, he had never heard of such a unit,
and he didn’t know why he had been placed there or
for how long. He wrote that he was being held in
extended solitary confinement, with constant
harassment by guards and only one hour every
other day for exercise, and he asked AFSC to monitor his situation.

In state after state, abuses associated with control
units have sparked lawsuits and community
campaigns. Prisoner-activists are working with
family members, community activists, and legal

One of the first control units, established in 1972 at
the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois, housed
sixty prisoners. Similar units were established the
same year in New Jersey and Massachusetts. When

AFSC published The Lessons of Marion in 1985,1
there were perhaps half a dozen such units scattered
around the country. By 1997, forty-five states and
the District of Columbia, as well as the federal
system, were operating control units.
During the 1990s, a new generation of super–
maximum security or supermax prisons began to
spread. These institutions were designed for the
universal and permanent isolation of all their
inhabitants. (Control units, by contrast, confine
a subgroup within a larger institution.) By 2002,
according to Human Rights Watch, more than
20,000 prisoners, or nearly 2 percent of the U.S.
prison population, were being held in long-term
solitary confinement.
From the beginning, control units have relied on
sensory deprivation. Prisoners are confined in tiny
cells the size of a parking space for twenty-three or
twenty-four hours a day, often in what they describe
as an “eerie silence.” In some cases, constant unpleasant noise, or having the lights on twenty-four
hours a day, creates a different form of sensory
assault, with similar effects.
Letters from prisoners tell of living in a cage the size
of a small bathroom (or considerably smaller in
some instances), with tiers of other cages above,
below, and to either side. Many of the cells have no
windows. The cells are often soundproof and there
is little interaction with anyone other than staff.
Educational or therapeutic programming is nonexistent; even exercise is solitary. Visits, telephone
calls, and mail from family and friends are severely
restricted, and reading material is censored. When a
prisoner leaves the cell, a strip search is conducted,
often including a pointedly humiliating anal probe
— even though the prisoner may have had no direct
contact with another human being for months.
Isolation, of course, has always been part of the
prison environment. In some cases, it has been used
to place prisoners in protective custody, when either
the prisoner or the prison staff believe that a lifethreatening situation exists. Solitary confinement
has also traditionally been used as a disciplinary


This publication was revised and reissued in 1993; see resource listing
on page 11.


measure, to punish infractions of prison rules. All
these forms of isolation have been used in abusive
ways. Nonetheless, they are not entirely arbitrary:
prison rules are published, violations are written
up, and the punishment is mandated for a definite
period of time.
With control units — according to prisoners’
accounts received by AFSC, as well as investigations
by independent monitoring organizations like
Human Rights Watch — the decision to isolate the
prisoner may be made without any formal proceeding, and the period of isolation most often has no
defined endpoint, especially when isolation is
imposed for “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” reasons. Because confinement in a control unit
is determined by prison authorities rather than the
courts, prisoners’ constitutional right to due process
of law is not recognized.
The newest supermax prisons use advanced technology to create an environment that combines
total isolation with unending surveillance. At New
York’s Upstate Correctional Facility, 1500 prisoners
live under the supervision of 370 guards and 800
surveillance cameras. New York’s first prison built as
a supermax, Upstate opened in 1999. One published
account describes how the institution is designed so
that prisoners never leave their cells:
Food trays arrive through a slot in the door, and
there’s a shower in the corner that’s carefully
regulated to spew lukewarm water three times a
week . . . . A guard in a central tower . . . control[s]
your access to the outside world. Each day, the
officer will unlock your back door by flipping a
switch in a control room. Now is your time for
“recreation” — a privilege that the courts have said
you must get. At Upstate, “rec time” means sixty
minutes by yourself in the outdoor cage attached to
the rear of your cells. It’s about half the size of your
cell, just big enough to do jumping jacks . . . Looking out from your own personal rec area — what
one of the prison’s architects describes as a “caged
balcony” and some guards call a “kennel” — you’ll
see other cages and a dirt yard empty except for a
row of surveillance cameras mounted on poles.
Officers watch your every move, and if you don’t
come in from recess, they’ll come get you (“The
Supermax Solution,” Village Voice, 19 May 1999).



Manufacturing Madness
IT IS WELL ESTABLISHED that isolation and sensory

deprivation can aggravate or even cause a variety of
psychiatric symptoms. As noted in a briefing paper
from Human Rights Watch,
Prisoners subjected to prolonged isolation may
experience depression, despair, anxiety, rage,
claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with
impulse control, and an impaired ability to think,
concentrate, or remember.

In 1996, as part of a National Campaign to Stop
Control Unit Prisons, AFSC helped convene public
hearings in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and
Colorado. Former and current control unit prisoners, family members, lawyers, activists, and advocates offered testimony. Through written testimony,
prisoners described being awakened at 1:00 in the
morning, strip-searched, and then told to pack their
belongings to switch cells. At the time this was
happening in New Jersey about twice a week.
Prisoners at the federal prison in Florence, Colorado (which has replaced Marion as the federal
supermax), described being woken up every hour
throughout the night by a flashlight shining in their
faces. Prisoners wrote in to report on the devastating effects of extended isolation, including a progressive inability to tolerate even ordinary stimulation. Some of them reported cutting themselves,
just so they could feel something.

In 1985 there were half a
dozen control units scattered
around the country. By 1997,
45 states and the District of
Columbia were operating
control units.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Harvard
University Medical School, is known for his expert
testimony about the psychological impact of control

units. In an interview with Leo Grieb, Grassian
notes that:
The courts have recognized that solitary confinement itself can cause a very specific kind of psychiatric syndrome, which in its worst stages can lead to
an agitated, hallucinatory, confusional psychotic
state often involving random violence and selfmutilation, suicidal behavior, [and other] agitated,
fearful and confusional kind of symptoms.

Elsewhere in this interview, Grassian describes his
first visit to a control unit:
I was pretty cynical when I was brought into it, I
didn’t think I was going to find anything. But I did
find something and it was shocking to see what I
found — that these inmates were so ill, that they all
tended to be ill in very similar kinds of ways, and
they were so frightened of what was happening to
them that they weren’t exaggerating their illness.
They were tending to minimize it, to deny it. They
were scared of it.

An Evolving Institution
expanded, their function within the prison environment has undergone a considerable evolution.

Studies of the recent history of incarceration suggest
that isolation and sensory deprivation were initially
used in the 1960s as a technique for behavior
modification with prisoners involved in the burgeoning prisoners’ rights movement (see sidebar
next page). In that era, Islamic militants, jailhouse
lawyers, ethnically based prison gangs, and activists
jailed for both nonviolent and violent political
activities all posed potent challenges to the balance
of power inside prisons. The concerns raised by all
these groups (about racism, brutality, overcrowding,
and the like) garnered considerable visibility and
support from outside prison walls, and ultimately
won a measure of vindication in the courts.
As with other social movements, the prisoners’
rights movement and its outside support networks
had waned by the end of the 1980s. Once established, however, control units became increasingly
normalized as part of the prison environment, and
they began to proliferate throughout the system. In



recent years, according to Human Rights Watch,
U.S. “experts” have begun promoting the supermax
model outside the United States.
As they became more common, supermax prisons
were promoted by prison authorities as a costeffective way of managing the huge increases in the
incarcerated population of the 1990s and beyond:
a labor-saving measure permitting large numbers
of prisoners to be controlled by fewer guards. In
reality, when the costs of control units and
supermax prisons are analyzed separately from the
general costs of incarceration, such settings turn out
to be more, not less, expensive, in some cases by a
considerable margin.
Once they are built, such institutions acquire their
own momentum. Correctional authorities must fill
them to justify the cost of their operation, leading to

arbitrary decisions about which prisoners are sent
to supermax prisons and why. This development has
in turn made the entire system more vulnerable to
legal challenges, as detailed in the final section of
this issue brief.
In an attempt to cut costs — while relieving the
pressures of extreme prison overcrowding — some
supermax prisons, like New York’s Upstate Correctional Facility, began double-celling prisoners,
combining all the stresses of permanent lockdown
with enforced proximity to another person, twentyfour hours a day. At one of the nation’s most
infamous control units, the Security Housing Unit
at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, the practice of double-celling was abandoned after ten
prisoners killed their cellmates over a period of
few years.

Political Prisoners in the United States
Although U.S. officials routinely deny the
existence of political prisoners in the
United States, more than 100 political
prisoners are currently behind bars, according to the Prisoners of Conscience
Project of the National Council of
Churches. Some, like members of the
Puerto Rican independence movement
or independentistas, consider themselves to be prisoners of war, captured
while fighting to reverse the illegal annexation of their country by the United
States. They cite several UN resolutions
that condemn colonialism and affirm the
right of colonized peoples to secure
their independence, if necessary
through armed resistance.
Other U.S. political prisoners were
members of militant organizations that
emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, like the
American Indian Movement (AIM), the
Black Liberation Army, or the Black Pan-

ther Party. These activists understood
themselves to represent the cause of
internally colonized peoples within the
United States, and they too have considered themselves to be prisoners of
war. Members of these groups, including many of those who were imprisoned, were frequently victims of sustained covert operations conducted illegally by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), through its notorious
Counter-Intelligence Program, or
COINTELPRO, which was publicly unmasked in the mid-1970s through congressional hearings and other means.
Still other political prisoners include
white activists who turned to armed
struggle, as well as activists from a later
generation of social movements, such
as the environmental movement.
Political prisoners have often received
inordinately lengthy sentences for their

participation in armed actions, as a
form of retaliation for the political character of their activities. In some cases,
like that of AIM member Leonard
Peltier, it has been clearly documented
how flagrant government misconduct
has resulted in the imprisonment of activists in the absence of any credible
evidence against them. In Peltier’s
case, the fabrication of evidence was
confirmed by numerous FBI documents released under the Freedom of
Information Act and even acknowledged by a federal appeals judge in
open court — after he reaffirmed
Peltier’s sentence of two consecutive
life terms. Likewise, although wellknown prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal
was never accused of politically motivated violence, his supporters cite numerous procedural flaws in his trial for
the murder of a Philadelphia police of-



Inside the Labyrinth
IN PUBLIC STATEMENTS to the media — or to

lawmakers authorizing budgets for prison construction — correctional authorities portray control
units and supermaxes as a way to safely confine the
most violent and dangerous prisoners. AFSC’s
experience, however, as well as reports from the
research community, strongly suggests that it is
largely the most vulnerable prisoners who tend
to end up in extended isolation.
Currently, people who are mentally ill, mentally
retarded, learning-disabled, or illiterate constitute a
large percentage of the prison population. Whether
the origins of their problems are neurological,
socioeconomic, or both, these populations often
experience the greatest difficulties in following
prison rules, controlling their own anger, or handling the prison social environment. As a result,

ficer to argue that he is in effect a political prisoner, railroaded in retaliation
for his outspoken critique of systematic abuse and brutality by the Philadelphia police, as well as his vocal support for the Black liberation movement.
Over the years, numerous campaigns
have sought justice for U.S. political prisoners. Today, millions of people around
the world, including countless public
figures, are calling for freedom for
Leonard Peltier, as well as a new trial
for Mumia Abu Jamal. Such support
campaigns have sometimes won significant victories. Late in 1999, for example,
after sustained public pressure, Leonard
Peltier was finally able to obtain lifesaving medical treatment that had been
denied to him for many years. That same
year, a group of Puerto Rican independentistas was granted clemency after a
prolonged support campaign.

Often it is not the most violent
but the most vulnerable
prisoners who end up in
extended isolation.
they are most likely to be written up for disciplinary
infractions and transferred to a control unit or
supermax facility. Once there, they are the least able
to withstand the rigors of isolation and the most
susceptible to complete mental breakdown and even
suicide. On occasion, prisoners have written to
request that AFSC advocate for others who are
clearly in need of psychiatric treatment — and are
being punished instead with isolation and brutality.

The history of political prisoners in
the United States is intimately connected with the history of control units.
Many political prisoners have been subjected to prolonged isolation. As noted
on page 3, control units were originally
introduced as a way of breaking the will
of the growing numbers of political
prisoners in U.S. prisons. Many political prisoners have been confined for
decades in isolation units.
In the 1980s, many church groups supported a successful campaign to close
down a control unit for women political
prisoners at the Lexington Federal
Correctional Institution in Kentucky. This
campaign helped publicize the use of
isolation and sensory deprivation, as
well as sexual abuse, as a tool for
behavior modification. When three of
the women sued the Bureau of Prisons
in 1988, a federal judge acknowledged

that the bureau had persecuted them
for their political beliefs and ordered
their immediate transfer out of the unit.
AFSC is committed to nonviolence, not
as a tactic but rather as a matter of deep
philosophical and spiritual commitment.
We cannot, however, ignore the existence of political prisoners in the United
States. Nor can we disregard violations
of their human and civil rights. In the
words of a 1981 statement by AFSC’s
Board of Directors, “We will not support
the choice of violence, but where basic
human rights and social equity are at issue, Quakers and the AFSC need to be
engaged in common cause to the limits
of our beliefs [and] capacity.” AFSC continues to support campaigns for justice
for political prisoners, in the United
States and around the world, just as we
continue to support the vision of self-determination that has guided their actions.

Segregation may also be used by prison authorities
as a form of retribution. AFSC continues to monitor
one New Jersey prisoner who blew the whistle on
open recruiting by the Ku Klux Klan among prison
guards. Prison guards retaliated by holding him in
isolation, withholding his AIDS medication, and
threatening him with transfer to another state prison
that is generally known to be run by Klan members.
AFSC, together with local activists from Newark’s
Boycott Crime Coalition, successfully pressed
correctional authorities to block the transfer and
order a halt to such retaliation. The prisoner reports
harassment every few months, according to AFSC
staff, “so we call the commissioner, which takes care
of the issue for another couple of months.”
Isolation is becoming the favored punishment for
more and more groups of prisoners. In recent years,
for example, growing numbers of prisoners have
been transferred to control units after being accused
of membership in a gang, whether prison-based or
street gangs.

Use of the “gang” label by
prison authorities is fraught
with racial profiling and
racial harassment.
Both inside and outside prison, gang membership
may represent a person’s only chance to achieve a
measure of security and group connection in a
dangerous and violent environment. At the same
time, gangs frequently engage in violent criminal
activity, terrorizing their own communities. As an
organized grouping functioning inside prisons,
gangs may challenge the ability of prison authorities
to control their institutions — and they may also
limit the ability of guards to engage in violence and
abuse with impunity. For all these reasons, the social
dynamics of gangs are extremely complex.
In inner city communities around the country,
many activists are working with youth to help them
transform street gangs into community groups that
can work to counter the grave problems caused by


structural poverty, joblessness, and capital flight.
Other groups are developing new models of community accountability, or strategies for reducing the
level of gun violence in poor urban communities.
For several decades, public resources have been
progressively withdrawn from all type of services in
urban communities. At the same time, government
policies, including financial incentives, have encouraged the proliferation of control units in their latest
incarnation as “security threat group management
units.” Currently, the inclusion of such units is
mandated by federal standards that govern how
subsidies are awarded for state prison construction.
In the contemporary prison environment, use of
the “gang” label by prison authorities is fraught
with racial profiling, racial harassment, and other
forms of abuse. The very definition of what constitutes a “gang” merits questioning. In a 1997 survey
issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, for example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections
was cited as listing “Native Americans” as a “gang”;
both Minnesota and Oregon defined all Asians as
“gang” members.
AFSC criminal justice staff in Massachusetts likewise note that prison authorities there consider use
of Puerto Rican cultural symbols to be evidence of
gang membership, with the result that an overwhelming majority of the state’s Puerto Rican
prisoners have been labeled as gang members. One
prisoner who was tattooed with the logo of a reggae
hand was classified as a “gang of one” and confined
in isolation for ten months. White supremacist
groups in prisons, on the other hand, are less likely
to be labeled as gangs or transferred to “security
threat group” units.
Massachusetts prisoners have been transferred to
the “gang block” — with control unit conditions,
including permanent lockdown — simply because
police have identified them as “associating” with
gang members, regardless of their behavior inside
the prison. AFSC staff describe conditions on the
gang block in these words:
Every guard on every shift is primed to deal with
prisoners there with calculated humiliation. They
call people names. Frequent cavity searches, even
for prisoners who have not left the block, are used



to discourage prisoners from seeking medical help,
therapy, or visits. Prisoners who try to fight back,
for example by refusing work, have been beaten,
tear-gassed, or thrown down the stairs.

The newest trend that AFSC criminal justice programs have observed is the increasing placement of
younger and younger prisoners in isolation. At the
same time, segregation cells and sensory deprivation
are beginning to spread to county jails, where
people with shorter sentences, who would once have
been held in minimum-security transitional sites,
are increasingly being subjected to permanent
lockdown and other maximum-security measures.
When such measures were introduced, many prison
guards believed that their jobs would be safer, since
prisoners were subjected to a more complete regime
of control. More recently, however, some guards’
unions have begun to question the spread of control

units, because the increased dehumanization and
brutalization of the prison environment has a
negative impact on guards as well as prisoners.
Brutality, they have learned, inevitably rebounds on
those who practice it. In Stuart Grassian’s words,
Pelican Bay State Prison became the biggest
employer in the region. But I was talking to some
of the corrections officers and they were talking
about what was happening to some of their friends
— the rate had skyrocketed of alcoholism, spousal
abuse, suicide. Working in that environment may
put money in your pocket, but over time it destroys you psychologically and brings out rage and
sadism and violence and brutality. The sobering
thought is that if you live in those kinds of environments for too long, you start losing some of
your own humanity.

Isolation, Torture, and the International Community
Under international standards for
human rights, extended isolation is
banned as a form of torture. In May 2000,
the United Nations (UN) Committee
Against Torture cited the “excessively
harsh regime” of supermax prisons as
violations of the Convention Against
Torture, adding that such violations are
widespread in the United States. It also
condemned the resurgence of chain
gangs, the sexual abuse of female prisoners, and racially motivated torture
and ill treatment by police and prison
guards, and called on the United States
to abolish the use of stun belts and restraint chairs and to cease imprisoning
juveniles with adults.
While other countries do operate isolation units, their use is far more restricted. In the United Kingdom, for example, 0.1 percent of the prison population is confined in isolation, as compared to an estimated 1.8 percent of the

U.S. prison population that is held in
supermax prisons, and an unknown
number of people in isolation units within
traditional prisons and jails. The United
States was the first country in the world
to operates entire prisons under a regime of permanent isolation and
lockdown; now, other countries are beginning to follow the U.S. example.
Many of the practices described in this
briefing paper are specifically banned
under international human rights covenants that the United States has ratified. For example, the Convention
Against Torture prohibits “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” and defines torture as “the intentional infliction of severe physical or
mental pain and suffering.” Torture is
likewise prohibited by the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Article 5 of the Inter-American Declaration of Human Rights, which is overseen

by the Organization of American States,
affirms the right to “physical and mental integrity” as well as the right to “freedom from torture.”
While the UN Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for implementation of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has declined to draw up a
detailed “list of prohibited acts,” it has
specified that “prolonged solitary
confinement” is prohibited as a form of
torture. Another UN code, the Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of
Prisoners, stipulates that “instruments
of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains,
[or] irons . . . shall never be applied as
A previous UN report, issued in 1995,
criticized the United States for operating “inhuman and degrading” prisons,
citing conditions at Pelican Bay and in

(continued on next page)



What’s more, the overwhelming majority of prisoners — as many as 94 percent — will eventually
return to the community. Some are released directly
from solitary confinement to the street. It is well
documented that sustained isolation and sensory
deprivation leave many prisoners overwhelmed with
rage and paranoia that they are unable to understand or control. As one AFSC staff member comments, “people should come out of prison in at least
as good shape as they came in.”
In the interview cited above, Stuart Grassian makes
a similar point:
It’s kind of like kicking and beating a dog and
keeping it in a cage until it gets as crazy and vicious
and wild as it can possibly get and then one day
you take it out into the middle of the streets of San
Francisco or Boston and you open the cage and
you run away. That’s no favor to the community.

(continued from preceding page)
detention facilities in Texas, Oklahoma,
and Tennessee.
While these UN condemnations have
helped focus public attention on human
rights issues in U.S. prisons, so far they
have not resulted in any changes in abusive prison practices. Although the U.S.
Constitution declares international treaties to be “the law of the land,” the U.S.
Senate, in ratifying the international covenants covering prison conditions and
torture, declared them to be “non-selfexecuting,” meaning that they were unenforceable in U.S. courts without additional enabling legislation. In addition,
the United States has signaled its “reservations” to key elements of these
covenants, including the definition of
what constitutes “cruel, inhuman, or
degrading” punishment.

Devices of Torture
FROM THE TIME AFSC began monitoring

control units, prisoners have reported that they are
operated with an extreme level of brutality. Letters
from isolation units around the country have told
of guards using fire hoses, mechanical restraints
and electrical devices, forced “cell extractions,”
beatings of prisoners in restraints, shackling in
painful positions, sleep deprivation, and other
forms of cruelty.
Over time, highly disturbing testimony began to
emerge from around the country, almost exclusively
from those living in isolation. Vivid descriptions
were received of restraint belts, restraint beds, stun
guns, stun belts, tethers, and waist and leg shackles.
One letter to AFSC described an Arizona prisoner
receiving twenty-two shocks from a stun gun before
he died. Other letters reported people being sprayed
with pepper spray and then being tied down out-

Some human rights advocates
believe that international standards
will ultimately provide a powerful
instrument to restrain abuses in
U.S. prisons. Others caution, however,
that the isolationist streak in U.S. political culture provokes resistance
to the application of international
norms. Most community-based
movements, for their part, have been
slow to adopt the language of international human rights.
Whether or not they will ever constitute an enforceable legal code, international human rights standards highlight a fundamentally different notion,
not only of basic human decency, but
also of efficient prison administration.
International covenants do not question the right of governments to deprive convicted prisoners of their liberty or even to impose solitary con-

finement. They state unequivocally,
however, that governments must not
deprive people of their dignity.
International norms suggest that good
relations between prisoners and staff,
rather than intimidation, brutality, and
control, should be the goal for prison
authorities. Not just outright torture but
depriving people of access to fresh air,
light, and exercise are violations of international standards for the treatment
of prisoners. Strict medical oversight
is seen as a necessity in the operation
of prisons, and solitary confinement is
prohibited for juveniles. By contrast, U.S.
prisons seem increasingly bent on
denying and destroying the dignity and
the very humanity of all who fall within
their grasp.



doors in the sun, where their sweat reactivated the
chemical agent. Still others told of prisoners being
restrained in chairs with their hands forcibly tucked
under their buttocks so they would be soiled by
bodily wastes, or urine-soaked pillowcases being
placed over the prisoners’ heads. One person
reported having been strapped down in a restraint
chair for twenty-one days.
In another report from California, a mentally ill
prisoner who spread feces over his body was given
a bath by guards so hot he suffered burns over 30
percent of his body. Other letters received by AFSC
indicate that the use of such devices is also growing
in women’s prisons and juvenile facilities.
Such accounts from individual prisoners have been
substantiated through human rights monitoring as
well as litigation directed at particular facilities,
including the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay
State Prison in California; the Oklahoma State
Penitentiary; the Maximum Control Complex in
Indiana; the Secured Housing Unit at the Wabash
Valley Correctional Institution, also in Indiana; and
the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.
In some of these cases, outside intervention has
resulted in court orders and consent decrees intended to halt the most extreme abuses. At times —
as with the Maryland Correctional Adjustment
Center, for example — the U.S. Justice Department
has stepped in. In recent years, however, legal action
has been seriously constrained following the passage
in 1996 of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
This law limits the power of federal courts to issue
injunctions ordering improvements in prison
conditions. In addition, the PLRA discourages
private attorneys from taking such cases by sharply
limiting their fees. It also bars prisoners from
seeking damages for illegal mistreatment unless
it results in physical injury.
Even so, many legal strategists consider that litigation is still the most effective response to specific
abuses, such as brutality or denial of medical care.
Nonetheless, they caution, it is less well suited to
challenging broad areas of social policy, such as the
fundamentally abusive nature of isolation or U.S.
refusal to abide by international standards prohibiting torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

Turning the Tide

late 1960s, AFSC has worked alongside many local
and national groups to publicize such abuses and
work to end them. Such work frequently includes
monitoring the situation of individual prisoners
and advocating on their behalf with prison authorities. AFSC staff and volunteers also speak about the
issues in college classrooms or public meetings,
supply information and contacts to journalists,
testify before policy makers, and work with legal
advocacy groups to identify cases for litigation.
Several of AFSC’s criminal justice programs coordinate volunteer “pen pal” programs, helping to
strengthen communication between prisoners and
the larger community.

Legal strategies cannot
address the basic issue of
whether supermax conditions
are ever appropriate for
In response to the spread of isolation, AFSC has
also developed various educational resources (see
page 11). These include a 1998 “Survivor’s Manual,”
in which prisoners and others share perspectives
about withstanding the psychological corrosion of
isolation. Publication of this manual helped seven
Pennsylvania prisoners secure their release from a
control unit, as well as assisting hundreds of others to
cope with brutal and damaging conditions. The
Prison Watch Program in Newark, NJ, also maintains
a “brief bank,” so that legal strategies and arguments
may be shared among prisoners who are contesting
their subjection to isolation.
Skyrocketing rates of incarceration and the spread of
control units affect not only prisoners but also their
families, friends, and communities, with a devastating
impact on many low-income communities and
communities of color. In response, community-based
coalitions have begun to play a key role in challenging
the spread of isolation. One example is the Massachu-



setts-based Campaign to Build Safer Communities, a
broad-based coalition initiated by AFSC and endorsed
by elected officials, community groups, prisoner
family networks, and human rights organizations.

legal challenge, Haverty et al. v. Commissioner of
Corrections. This case, which dates back to the mid1990s, challenged systematic violations of due
process in the assignment of prisoners to the DDU.

The Massachusetts campaign has been successful in
focusing community attention on its efforts to shut
down the Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU),
the control unit at the state prison in South
Walpole, MA. In October 2002, these sustained
organizing efforts helped win a major victory in a

The legal victory in Massachusetts, and the growing
level of community mobilization, echoes the
experience of many other areas around the country.
Litigation in Ohio (see sidebar below), Texas, New
Jersey, and Wisconsin has produced victories for the
growing movement against control units. Perhaps

“Today I felt the rain on my face”
“Everyone said it was hopeless,” recalls
activist lawyer Staughton Lynd, when
a group of prisoners challenged the way
the state of Ohio assigns prisoners to
the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a
supermax prison that opened in 1998.
“Security classification,” explains Lynd,
“is at the core of the mission” for the
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and
Correction, and legal experts believed
that the prisoners were sure to lose their
class-action suit, Austin v. Wilkinson.
Instead, in February 2002 the plaintiffs
won a significant legal victory, when a
federal district court ruled that the state
must follow strict due-process guidelines before sending prisoners to OSP.
Following the decision, the number of
people incarcerated at OSP quickly began to fall, when a court-ordered review
of individual cases determined that
some two-thirds of the prisoners did not
meet the criteria for such restrictive
While this is only a partial victory, it is
one that has a significant impact in prisoners’ lives, since many prisoners were
quickly taken off “high max” (supermax)
status. “Since this decision,” notes
Lynd, “we’ve been getting letters saying things like, ‘today I felt the rain on

my face’, or ‘they gave me a whole
apple’. One prisoner wrote in to say, ‘I
sat outside and smoked a whole cigarette’.” In addition, several dozen prisoners at OSP are finally receiving treatment for hepatitis C, because of the
medical monitor ordered by the court.
Staughton and Alice Lynd, lifelong
activists and retired lawyers, have been
monitoring OSP since it opened its
doors in 1998. “Over the years,” says
Alice Lynd, “I’ve been in close correspondence with more than 300 prisoners there. I counsel prisoners on
strategies for addressing their circumstances and they feed back information
on the results.” When considering
litigation, “before we filed anything we
would go and talk to the prisoners
for their insights. Prisoners were involved in every key decision about
legal strategy.”
Staughton describes the “extraordinary
meetings” during this case with the
group of plaintiffs. OSP authorities did
not allow the Lynds to meet with their
clients face to face, permitting the group
to meet only in empty dormitories or
“pods” inside the prison. “The prisoners were each in individual cells,” he
explains, “talking through food slots in

solid steel doors. You’re meeting with a
dozen pairs of eyes. People have to
shout at the top of their lungs to make
themselves heard.
“People think that prisoners cannot take
initiative on their own behalf,” he continues, “but the human spirit is infinitely
resourceful.” One moment that “stays
with me,” he adds, is of a meeting during the trial when the prisoners voted
not to accept a settlement offer from
the state. “They said, ‘It would help me
personally, but it’s not going to solve
the problem’.”
At the trial, recalls Staughton, “I questioned thirteen prisoners about their experience of supermax confinement,
from 3:00 p.m. one day to 5:00 p.m. the
next. The witnesses were immensely
dignified, they each gave an incisive
presentation … and we won.”

Austin v. Wilkinson sets an important
precedent because the court certified
that incarceration in a supermax prison
is a “significant hardship,” the legal
standard for a claim under the due process clause of the Bill of Rights. Future
litigation defending prisoners’ rights will
be able to draw on this precedent to
argue that supermaxes undermine basic constitutional rights.



most important, legal cases have served as a focus
for widespread community opposition, which,
together with the high costs of building and operating supermax prisons, has slowed the proliferation
of these institutions.
Such victories, while encouraging, still fall short of a
real solution to the problems posed by control units.
Successful legal challenges have often focused on
due process issues about how prisoners are assigned
to supermax prisons or control units. In several
states, however, activists report that prison authorities have responded by simply changing the classification of the prison or unit to “general population,”
without actually changing the conditions that
sparked the litigation.
Other cases have focused on issues relating to
mental health and medical care. The resulting

legal victories, notes one AFSC staff member,
have “improved things somewhat, but the quality
of medical and mental health services in prisons
is so low overall that it will never be satisfactory.”
In general, she adds, legal strategies “cannot address
the basic issue of whether supermax conditions
are ever appropriate for anyone.”
AFSC believes that isolation units, supermax
prisons, sensory deprivation, brutality toward
prisoners, and the use of devices of torture are
all violations, not only of human rights, but
also of fundamental human decency. All have
little or nothing to do with the safe and orderly
operation of correctional institutions — and
everything to do with the spread of a culture
of violence, retribution, dehumanization,
and sadism.
(Continued on next page)

AFSC Resources on Control Units and Isolation


“The Lessons of Marion: The Failure
of a Maximum Security Prison,”
Anthony Prete, ed., AFSC, Philadelphia,
1993. Available for $3 from AFSC’s national Criminal Justice Program in Philadelphia, PA; tel. 215.241.7048; e-mail Free to prisoners.

· Lock Up/Lock Down, produced by
James Lipscomb, 2000. This video
documentary on control units was produced with assistance from AFSC programs in Ohio and New Jersey. Available for $19.95 from Discovery Channel, tel. 1.800.938.0333.

·“Prison Conditions and the Treatment
of Prisoners,” in Torture in the United
States, 1999, World Organization
Against Torture–USA. May be downloaded from

· The website · “Survival in Solitary,” AFSC and Caliis operated by the Campaign to Build
Safer Communities, a broad-based coalition initiated by the Criminal Justice
Program in AFSC’s New England
Regional Office. The website includes
state-ments and action alerts from the
campaign, as well as fact sheets
on control units and information on
Massachusetts based initiatives.
Printed versions of campaign materials
are available from American Friends
Service Committee, 2161 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140;
tel. 617.661.6130, ext. 120; e-mail

fornia Prison Focus, 1997, 1999. Available free of charge from the Prison
Watch project of AFSC’s Criminal
Justice Program in Newark, NJ; tel.
973.643.3192; e-mail


“Torture in U.S. Prisons: Evidence of
U.S. Human Rights Violations,” Julia
Lutsky, ed., AFSC Criminal Justice Program, Newark, NJ, 2001. Collection of
testimonies from prisoners; available
free of charge from the Prison Watch
project of AFSC’s Criminal Justice Program in Newark, NJ; tel. 973.643.3192;

With each passing year, such practices have become
more routine throughout the prison system. By
now, virtually every state prison in the country
routinely utilizes control measures that just a
decade ago were seen as unusual — and horrifying.
Currently, as we have noted, these measures are
beginning to spread to county jails, juvenile facilities, and prisons for women.
This culture of violence is profoundly destructive
to those who suffer its effects, brutalizing not only


prisoners, but also prison guards and officials who
become the daily agents of inhumanity. The larger
community is also gravely harmed — not only by
the practical difficulties of reintegrating human
beings who have been so deeply traumatized, but
also by the profound erosion of our simple humanity. Here, as in every arena of life, violence only
breeds more violence. Institutionalizing the use of
violence can never solve the problems that violence
has created, in our communities or in our world.


AFSC Criminal Justice & Anti-Death Penalty Programs
National Program
1501 Cherry St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102
ph: 215-241-7130
fax: 215-241-7119
Regional Programs
Ann Arbor
1414 Hill St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
ph: 734-761-8283
4806 York Rd.
Baltimore, MD 21212
ph: 410-323-7200
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02140
ph: 617-661-6130
915 Salem Ave.
Dayton, OH 45406
ph: 937-278-4225
972 Broad St., 6 Floor
Newark, NJ 07102
ph: 973-643-3079

1515 Webster St.
Oakland, CA 94612
ph: 510-238-8080
St. Louis
438 North Skinker Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63130
ph: 314-862-5773
2013 East Genesee St., Suite One
Syracuse, NY 13210
ph: 315-475-4822
931 N. Fifth Ave.
Tucson, AZ 85705
ph: 520-623-9141

Justice Visions
What is the meaning of justice in a world based
on violence, exclusion and inequality?
Additional working papers in this series from the
American Friends Service Committee

Whose Safety?
Women of Color and the Violence of Law Enforcement
This comprehensive research report documents how women of color, both
immigrant and U.S.-born, face violence and the abuse of authority in their
interactions with law enforcement — from local police to the prison system to the US Border Patrol to INS raids and detention facilities. Like intimate violence, the violence of the state affects every aspect of women’s
lives, from reproductive rights to safety in the home to rights and dignity
in the workplace. Copublished by AFSC and the Committee on Women,
Population, and the Environment. A Justice Visions working paper by
Anannya Bhattacharjee.

Justice in a Time of Broken Bones:
A Call to Dialogue on Hate Violence and the Limitations of Hate Crimes Legislation
Is the current push for stronger hate crimes legislation an opportunity to
strengthen rights and recognition for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
communities – or a strategy that will yield many unintended consequences?
What is the meaning of justice – and safety – for groups affected by hate
violence, such as LGBT people, people of color, Jews, Muslims, people
with disabilities, and women? What does it mean to organize against hate
violence when we envision justice as an expression of the transformative
power of love and community, rather than punishment and retribution? A
Justice Visions Working Paper by Katherine Whitlock.
Justice Visions working papers are available as bound publications or downloadable
from the web at For more information contact AFSC’s
Community Relations Unit (

American Friends Service Committee
1501 Cherry St.

Philadelphia PA, 19102




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