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The Edgy Ambience of US Supermax Prisons

17/07/2014 11:20 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 10:59 BST

One of the bars in London I've frequented over the years is a basement place done out with industrial-chic steel and concrete fittings. It's a small DJ venue with very few seats, but it's the seating that sticks in the mind. There are three tables made out of enormous blocks of stone (or something concrete-like) which are adjacent to stone bench-type things. It's all pretty minimalistic and also Flintstones-ish but sort of works in this particular bar-cum-club setting. After all, you're there for the music, the drinking. You're not actually going to treat this environment as a home. These aren't normal furnishings.

The spartan surroundings of this bar come to mind reading the new Amnesty report on the federal supermax prison (ADX Florence) in the US state of Colorado. The prison also creates a "minimal" environment out of mostly steel and concrete. In the cells the bed (a sort of ledge) is made of reinforced concrete. The table in the cell is made of reinforced concrete, and so is the stool. A wash basin, toilet and shower are all steel, as of course is the door (the cells in ADX Florence also have an air-lock-style chamber in front of the corridor door). To get a feel for it - see some of the photos in the report.

Needless to say though, ADX Florence is a very far cry from the sights and sounds of a London drinking hole. What this prison specialises in is extreme isolation - putting inmates into conditions where they have minimal contact with fellow human beings and very little environmental stimulation. Cocooned in these stark single cells for 22-24 hours a day, taken for "recreation" sessions in an outdoor cage surrounded by high walls, allowed to converse with almost no-one - the average ADX Florence inmate is subjected to months or years of isolation-as-punishment (the prisoners have mostly been sent here for offences committed in other jails). Some prisoners have endured this kind of inhuman isolation for an unbelievable length of time - 30 years in one case - and the average length of solitary confinement at the jail is around eight years.

Not surprisingly, many inmates develop mental illnesses, or existing mental health disorders get worse. The prison is currently the subject of numerous lawsuits and conditions have reportedly improved a little in the last year or so, but here's a basic flavour of it:

  • Some prisoners routinely smear themselves and their cells with their own faeces, howl or shriek continuously or bang their metal showers at all hours of the day or night.
  • Up until recently there were only two mental health professionals (two psychologists) serving around 450 inmates, assisted by a psychiatrist for just half a day a week.
  • In Range 13 (a special super-isolation unit within the main prison) the cells have no outside view and the only light comes from a small window at the top of the cell too high to see through. Cameras are positioned on the cell 24 hours a day. Despite past claims that no prisoner is held here for more than 30 days at a time, one prisoner spent almost three years in Range 13 during 2005-8.
  • The outdoor recreation area of Range 13 is a concrete pit surrounded by high, featureless walls on all sides, described by one prisoner as "like being inside of a deep, empty, swimming pool".
  • In the Control Unit, another of ADX Florence's special hyper-isolated prisons-within-a prison, inmates often end up spending months or years longer in extreme isolation than they were originally supposed to because they repeatedly fail "good conduct" assessments based on criteria like "Personal Grooming and Cleanliness" and "Quarters Sanitation". The problem of course is that they're often dishevelled or even smearing cells with their own excrement because ... they're in acute mental distress. It's a particularly cruel Catch-22.
  • JP, a prisoner with a history of mental illness, was transferred to the Control Unit in 2001 to serve a five-year sentence after he escaped from a medium-security prison. In the unit JP repeatedly self-harmed, including: lacerating his scrotum with a piece of plastic (2005); biting off his finger (2007); inserting staples into his forehead (2008); cutting his wrists and being found unconscious in his cell (2009). Because he'd failed to comply with various good conduct requirements he actually spent ten-and-half-years in the unit. Later, after going in and out of hospital but never getting mental health care in a proper therapeutic setting, he went through further self-harming in ADX Florence, including inserting metal into a hole in his skull he'd created, which the prison authorities say cannot now be safely removed.

There are numerous other examples, many equally depressing. Also, see my past posts on similar super-max isolation regimes in Arizona and California, plus this recent Telegraph article on Maine.

The US authorities argue that carceral isolation is used in only about 2% of cases within the US prison system, but over 40 states use some form of super-max detention and in total some 100,000 prisoners are in these conditions on any given day. This industrial-scale warehousing of people is frightening. It's an extreme mind/body control regime that - in places like ADX Florence - would have had even Discipline and Punish author Michel Foucault recoiling in horror.

As I was saying at the outset, in certain London bars I reckon the bare monastic cell look is considered quite cutting edge. By contrast, ADX Florence is beyond cutting edge (unless it's prisoners cutting their wrists in despair). ADX Florence's ambience is an altogether bleaker affair, one which seems designed to crush people and push them right over the edge.