Buried Alive Cruel and Unusual Punishment
by Stephen Lendman
What America’s Eighth Amendment and international law prohibit, US federal, state and local prisons permit.
Solitary Watch reports “news from a nation in lockdown” to bring America’s widespread use of barbaric “solitary confinement and other forms of torture in U.S. prisons out of the shadows and into the light of the public square.”
It calls the practice “one of the most pressing (unaddressed) domestic human rights issues in America today – and also one of the most invisible.”
Many thousands are affected. More on that below. Supposedly solely for the “worst of the worst,” it’s used abusively as punishment without cause, despite no legitimate penological purpose.
“Today, inmates can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, using drugs, ignoring orders, or using profanity.”
Thousands are isolated for whatever reasons authorities choose. Some were for being gang members “based on information from other inmates who are rewarded for ‘snitching,’ ” whether or not what they said was true.
Mentally ill inmates are punished. So are children needing “protection,” gays, lesbians, and transsexuals, Muslim for praying to the wrong God, others for their political beliefs, or those reporting rape by prison officials and/or guards. “In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarian men have been in solitary for ten years because they refuse to cut their hair on religious grounds.”
Long-term effects are profound. They include severe anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, emotional breakdown, hallucinations, profound despair and hopelessness, regressive behavior, paranoia, self-mutiliation, suicidal thoughts, and other self-destructive behavior.
Over time, everyone’s vulnerable to emotional breakdown and uncontrolled behavior. Long-term confinement in windowless cells 23 hour a day causes madness. Even the strongest-willed break.
Inmates have little or no human contact. They’re denied visits, phone calls, television, reading material, art supplies, and other common amenities most people take for granted.
Many remain isolated for years. In Louisiana, two aging prisoners have endured solitary confinement for four decades. It’s astonishing how anyone could withstand it and stay alive. In fact, they’re among the living dead.
Precise numbers of isolated prisoners aren’t known. Little data’s published. Many states don’t collect it. However, at any time, many thousands are affected. Over 25,000 supermax inmates endure long-term isolation under constant closed-circuit TV surveillance.
Many thousands more also endure it in federal, state, and local Secure Housing Units, Restricted Housing Units, Special Management Units, and other solitary conditions with little or no outside contact.
The most recent 2005 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found 81,622 inmates in “restricted housing” confinement. Categories include administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, and protective custody.
According to Solitary Watch.com, best available data confirm “at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.”
ACLU Lawsuit Charges Arizona’s Prisons with Cruel and Unusual Punishment
On March 6, the ACLU Prison Law Office and Arizona Center for Disability Law, as well as Jones Day and Perkins Coie law firms claimed Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) authorities house thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement conditions so harsh they violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Gratuitous cruelty’s inflicted. It includes windowless cells, 24 hour illumination, two poor quality daily meals, little or no medical care, constant isolation except for six hours weekly most prisoners refuse because they hardly differ from daily confinement, and much more. An ACLU press release states:
“Prisoners in the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections receive such grossly inadequate medical, mental health and dental care that they are in grave danger of suffering serious and preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement and even death, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed today by a legal team led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office.”
“The lawsuit also charges that thousands of prisoners are routinely subjected to solitary confinement in windowless cells behind solid steel doors, in conditions of extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation, leading to serious physical and psychological harm. Some prisoners in solitary receive no outdoor exercise for months or years on end, and some receive only two meals a day.”
Prison Law Office executive director Donald Specter called Arizona’s prison conditions “among the worst I’ve ever seen. Prisoners have a constitutional right to receive adequate health care, and it is unconscionable for them to be left to suffer and die in the face of neglect and deliberate indifference.”
Critically ill prisoners desperate for help are told “be patient,” or “it’s all in your head.” Lung cancer victim Ferdinand Dix filed repeated health need requests in vain. Untreated, it spread to his liver, lymph nodes, and other major organs before being hospitalized when it was too late.
Arizona Center for Disability Law attorney Jennifer Alewelt said:
““Faced with such gross indifference on the part of prison officials to the needs of prisoners with mental illness in their care, it was essential we get involved.”
Among other concerns, the lawsuit demands prisoners be given constitutionally adequate health care, including medications in a timely manner. It also wants them no longer held under social and sensory deprivation conditions, risking serious long-term harm.
According to Arizona legal director Daniel Pochoda:
“Arizona has used the absence of transparency to callously ignore the basic needs of persons entrusted to its care, at times with deadly results. Absent court intervention, the health and well-being of thousands of prisoners will continue to be sacrificed to economic expediency,” indifference and gratuitous brutality.
“Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona’s Prisons and Jails”
In 2007, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) published a detailed report on how isolated Arizona prisoners are brutally treated. Calling it the first of its kind in the state, it launched AFSC’s “StopMax Arizona campaign.”
Its “deeply troubling” findings said:
“Arizona has chosen to employ long-term isolation not only for sentenced adult felons but also for juveniles under 18 years of age and for persons detained in jail prior to being found guilty of the criminal charges pending against them. The implications of these practices are far reaching and potentially damaging to Arizona families and communities.”
Isolated cells are small with only a toilet, sink, and metal slab for a bed. Most are windowless, so night and day are indistinguishable. Prisoners describe either eerie silence or deafening noise 24-hours a day.
Isolated, they have virtually no human contact. Food’s delivered through small steel door slots. Shakedowns and strip searches are common. Inmates have no access to prison programs, including jobs, rehab or education.
In 2000, the United Nations Committee Against Torture called supermax isolation in violation of the UN Torture Convention. Prisoners call it “the hole.” A few days alone are punishing. Imagine how horrific for years.
Arizona has two type long-term isolation facilities: Special Management Units (SMU) I and II. In 2007, they housed 1,623 inmates. Over one-fourth were mentally ill. Average confinement lasts five years. Prisoners say it’s like being buried alive. One said he “never truly wanted to die until I spent time in an Arizona SMU.”
In other words, death’s preferable to daily torture. Juveniles are also isolated. Cognitive science research shows young brains don’t mature until early twenties. Punishing them this brutally causes permanent impairment.
Arizona’s Maricopa County Jails house America’s fourth largest inmate population. It includes a supermax security wing with 144 beds and 288 close custody cells employing various types of isolation.
Most inmates await trials under horrific conditions. Innocence or guilt doesn’t matter. Maricopa County sheriff Joseph Arpaio makes national headlines for barbarity.
AFSC findings replicate information above. Key ones state:
“1. Prisoners in supermax units have higher rates of mental illness.
2. Supermax units are damaging to prisoners’ mental health.
3. There is no evidence that supermax units reduce prison violence.
4. Research suggests that long-term isolation is linked to increased recidivism.”
A Final Comment
AFSC and others bluntly say long-term isolation violates human rights standards amounting to torture and abusive treatment.
At the same time, no penological purpose is served. It’s employed punitively. Children like adults are affected. So are mentally ill inmates. Authorities act with impunity. Prisoner have no rights whatever.
No society should tolerate it. Neither should lawmakers. Fundamental international humanitarian laws are violated.
They include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Torture Convention, and UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
In 1995, the UN Human Rights Committee called long-term prison isolation incompatible with international standards. Moreover, in 1996, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment concurred.
So do other human rights advocates. No one should be treated barbarically for any reason. America’s gulag is the world’s largest and in many respects the worst.
Focus solely is on punishment. Rehabilitation’s virtually ignored. Federal, state and local prisons are just as punitive. Thousands of horror stories aren’t told, including torture as well as male and female rape.
Angela Davis calls it “an institutionalized component of punishment behind prison walls,” affecting men, women and children.
Guantanamo’s not just in Cuba. It proliferates across America out of sight and mind because major media scoundrels ignore it.
In a nation practicing torture as official policy, anything behind bars goes on. Those affected have no escape. Those in charge don’t give a damn and do what they please with impunity.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.