By Eric Rudolph
In the old days, every prison had what was called the “hole.” This was a part of the prison set aside to segregate problem inmates in solitary confinement for having committed offenses while in prison, such as assaulting guards or other inmates. Usually an inmate's stay in the “hole” was brief, the length of time determined by the type of offense committed. Once his time in the “hole” was up, the inmate was returned to the general population. In more extreme cases, prisoners were kept in these conditions for longer periods. These were death row inmates and incorrigible inmates. This traditional use of the “hole” was in keeping with the philosophy that an inmate's behavior in prison should determine the condition of his confinement. It was a rehabilitative approach. If compliant with prison rules, he should have the privilege of living in general population, where he might work, have access to a library, take part in educational programs, and enjoy leisure activities. Conversely, if not compliant with prison rules, he would be put in the “hole” for a period of time. And when his time was up, he'd be given the opportunity to live in general population again.
Then in the 1980s, this country threw out the rehabilitative approach to penology and decided to permanently warehouse prisoners in solitary confinement. They called this new type of prison the “supermax.” Now, in both the state and federal prison systems, there are two types of prisons: general population and supermax. In your typical general population prison, inmates are locked down in their cells for only eight to twelve hours each day. While out of their cells, inmates have the opportunity to work, where they can earn a little money to buy stamps, books and pens. They can participate in group educational programs, group rehabilitative programs, and group religious services. Inmates have access to the Law Library and to typewriters. There is a large exercise yard and at least some contact with nature in the form of a tree or a field of grass. Visits with loved ones are face-to-face. And inmates can make several phone calls each month. In short, the prisoners are afforded some semblance of a life.
Supermax is a different animal entirely. The basic setup is for long-term solitary confinement. The purpose is to gradually tear a person down mentally and physically, through environmental and physical deprivation. The supermax is in effect one big “hole.” The conditions are just above the minimum requirements for solitary confinement: prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day; one hour of exercise a day for five days a week; no exercise on weekends; no physical contact with other inmates or staff; visits with loved ones are through thick glass; very limited contact with the outside world. The architecture of supermax is dehumanizing and designed to limit contact with nature. Staff is encouraged by their superiors to see themselves as instruments of punishment. The original “hole” was designed as a temporary place of corrective punishment; the supermax is designed to hold inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.
The supermax concept is part of the larger get-tough-on-crime policy this country took starting with the Nixon administration. The cause of the crime problem was liberalism dispensed at the local level. The counterculture, the drug culture, the assault upon the family, the growing militancy in the minority ghettos caused crime rates to grow in the 1960s. Divorce rates doubled between 1960 and 1974. Illegitimacy rates among blacks went from 23 percent in 1963 to 48 percent in 1980 (James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 671). The murder rate doubled between 1963 and 1970--from 4.6 per 100,000 to 9.2 per 100,000 (New York Times, Oct. 23, 1994). Coincident with the explosion in crime, prisons became gladiatorial schools where violent gangs battled one another over drug turf.
No longer willing or able to affect the larger cultural trends causing the crime problem, conservatives decided to lock themselves in gated communities and sweep the “riffraff” into prisons. They thought they were going to prosecute and incarcerate their way back to the placid suburbs of the 1950s. They hired more cops, passed new laws, increased sentences, built more prisons, and made prison conditions harsher. The supermax was part of this package.
The stated purpose of the supermax was to make prisons safer for staff and inmates. Prisons were out of control, they said. Gangs controlled the prison yards. Staff and inmates lived in fear of predatory gangs. What we need, they said, is a special kind of prison in which to put gang members and those inmates who have demonstrated through their behavior that they cannot function around staff or other inmates without being a threat. Lock them up and beat them down so the guards and the rest of the prisoners can live in peace, they said. If you listen to the prison administrators, this is still the party line on supermaxes. In reality, the supermaxes have failed in this mission and become something entirely different. Violence in general population prisons has not been substantially reduced. And the anti-gang system never succeeded, it simply shattered the gangs into pieces. The gangs are no longer as centralized or as visible as they once were. But they still control the prison yards, they are just a little more cautious. And those gang members who were locked down in supermaxes have been replaced. And the practice of segregating gang dropouts and check-ins (inmates who have dropped out of a gang or who have been targeted for assault and have therefore checked themselves into protective custody) in supermaxes has created a situation where these types of inmates are now over-represented in supermax prisons. Instead of breaking up gangs and segregating predatory inmates, supermaxes are now housing many of their victims. Even more pernicious, supermaxes have now become mental institutions and political prisons. Instead of spending money on programs for the mentally ill, prison administrators now lock them in supermaxes and feed them pills through the door slot three times a day. And because conditions in a supermax are much more onerous than in a general population prison, the government now uses them to add an extra measure of punishment for inmates who have committed politically motivated offenses.
Every prison system in the country has built at least one supermax prison. United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX) at Florence, Colorado is the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ supermax. Since the courts have yet to rule these dungeons to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which they clearly are, the major issue is the criteria for placing and keeping an inmate in supermax.
The inmates argue that because the conditions are so much more harmful in supermax than in a general population prison, administrators ought to have an objective cause--assaulting a guard, dealing drugs--before they can place you in one. And more important, there ought to be objective standards that an inmate can meet in order to work his way out of supermax and back into general population. On the other side, the government argues that the prisoners are chattel and prison administrators should have the absolute power to place any inmate wherever they want him, regardless of his behavior and regardless of the conditions in the prison. Administrators insist that the criteria for placing and keeping an inmate in a supermax remain completely subjective and based solely on their “professional judgment as to the inmate's probable future behavior.”
Back in the 1990s an inmate brought a case before the Supreme Court, claiming that his due process rights were violated as a result of his being sentenced to thirty days in Disciplinary Segregation (Sandin v. Conner.) The Court ruled that a mere thirty days in Disciplinary Segregation (DS), where the conditions are the same as in any supermax, was not enough to implicate Sandin’s liberty interests. But the Supremes speculated that if Sandin had been living in such “atypical” conditions for a long period of time he would have had a liberty interest in avoiding placement in such a segregation unit. And if that were the case, then the government had an obligation to provide some form of due process before they could justifiably transfer and keep an inmate in long-term segregation--what they called Administrative Segregation (AS) as opposed to Disciplinary Segregation. Supermaxes are designed to house inmates under Administrative Segregation long term. How much due process was due to inmates in supermax? The court didn’t say.
Then in 2006 a group of inmates housed in Ohio’s notorious supermax were back before the Supreme Court to get an answer to this question (Wilkinson v. Austin). The Court’s answer: not much. Yes, prison administrators had to give inmates due process to place and keep them at Ohio’s supermax, said the Court, but very minimal due process standards would be sufficient. First, administrators had to give an inmate notification of his impending transfer to the supermax. Second, they had to give him the opportunity to contest his transfer to supermax. And third, while at supermax he had to be given a “meaningful periodic review” in order to keep him there. At the review, the inmate could again contest his placement in the supermax. But here was the rub--the Supremes left it to the prison administrators to decide the criteria for placing and keeping an inmate in a supermax. Put simple, an inmate can keep a clean record in general population for decades, but if the warden decides one day to transfer him to a supermax, he’ll be on a bus in a few days. And even if he should turn into Mother Theresa while he is at supermax, the warden can still keep him there indefinitely. The “meaningful periodic reviews” every six months are mere formalities. The due process standards violate every standard of due process.
Most inmates at ADX, including myself, are here under long term Administrative Segregation. Despite Sandin v. Connor and Wilkinson v. Austen the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) provides no due process procedures for placement and retention at ADX. There is no notification of transfer to ADX; no chance to contest the transfer; and once here, the only means to contest the transfer to ADX is through the Administrative Remedies process. But this fails the test of due process because new inmates are not even informed that this system of Administrative Remedies is available to them in order to challenge their transfer here. If an Administrative Remedy is not filed within twenty days of transfer, the transfer decision cannot be directly challenged thereafter. While at ADX an inmate is given a Unit Team review every six months, at which they simply tell him to keep his cell clean. That’s it. If, as I have done at each review, you ask them when you’ll be eligible to transfer to a general population prison, they’ll tell you, “not yet.” Ask them how long you’ll be here, they say, “we don’t know.” It’s completely meaningless; the process is a rubberstamp refusal.
Better procedural due process would be nice, but that still doesn’t get to the real issue, which is the government’s power to place inmates in supermax based solely on “predictive judgments about an inmate's future behavior.” This power is completely arbitrary and violates every standard of due process. “The standard of due process is the protection of the individual against the arbitrary action off government” (Dent v. West Virginia).
There are, however, cracks in the dungeon walls. First, the BOP’s own Program Statement 5100.07 Security Designation and Classification Manual says: “Bureau of Prisons inmate transfer policy provides that ADX Florence is for those inmates who have demonstrated an inability to function in a less than restrictive environment without being a threat to others, or to the secure and orderly operation of the institution” (emphasis added). Moreover, one of the BOP’s pet cases, Hewitt v. Helms states that “Administrative Segregation may not be used as a pretext for indefinite solitary confinement of an inmate.” Neither of these standards are followed at ADX. The program I’ve been assigned to is a long term Administrative Segregation program designed for political offenders. The standards for placement and retention are deliberately ambiguous. Contrary to P.S. 5100.07, I have never been in general population prison, and therefore have never had the chance to “demonstrate an inability to function in a less restrictive environment…” And during the four years I’ve been incarcerated I have never broken any major prison rules: I have never assaulted staff or other inmates; never attempted escape; and I’m not a gang member. All of the penological reasons used to justify placing an inmate here at ADX don’t apply to me. Nor do they apply to many of the other inmates in this unit.
The government claims that this is a non-punitive segregation prison. This is a lie. All of the politicals have been put here to add an extra measure of punishment to the original conviction, not because they were unable to “function in a less restrictive environment.” The BOP knows perfectly well that all the politicals would be model inmates in a general population prison. We are here solely because our offenses were politically motivated. Washington says that it is politically neutral in its penological decisions and the only reason an inmate ends up at ADX is because he has demonstrated that he cannot function in a general population prison. This is another lie. We were put here for our political militancy, that was the sole criteria for placement at ADX. ADX is Washington’s trophy cabinet, it’s where they showcase captured militants. Practically every month the Warden leads tours through the unit so they can view the captured “terrorists.” Dressed in perfectly pressed business suits, they stare through the window of the cell at us, and then they walk over to the door and read the little prison ID card to see what manner of creature they are viewing.
If Washington wants a political prison, then it should have to write that into law. But they have not done so because it is unconstitutional to place inmates in segregation solely for their political convictions. In Baraldini v. Meese several leftwing militants were put in segregation for their “militant political beliefs.” The Court said this was a no-no because it violated their First Amendment rights. Although prison administrators could use security-based criteria for placing inmates in segregation, they could not confine inmates under such onerous conditions solely because of their political militancy.
In the Wilkinson case the lower courts addressed this issue appropriately; however, when the case went before the Supremes, the substantive due process issue was dismissed, probably because it could not be argued properly. Wilkinson v. Austin dealt with Ohio’s supermax. Only rarely are inmates put in a state supermax for political militancy. Most state supermax inmates have extensive records of misconduct while they’ve been in general population prisons. Consequently, it was easier for the administration to argue that a given inmate's transfer to supermax was justified. Moreover, most state supermax residents are stepped out of the supermax within five years. Neither of these apply here. Inmates such as myself were model inmates before coming here, we’ve been model prisoners during our stay at ADX, and yet there is no regular step-down process for us. The decision to place us here was political, not penological. It came from Washington. And if we are moved out of here, the decision will come from the same place, based on the same criteria.
The inmate who lives in the cell above mine is typical. He was sent here in 1997 and has never been given an opportunity to go to a general population prison. Before coming here he was imprisoned in a foreign country. After his stretch there he was taken by the FBI and put on trial in Washington, where he was sentenced to a life term and immediately transferred to ADX. He was a model inmate overseas; he has been a model inmate here at ADX. Just like me, he was transferred here and is kept here solely for his political convictions.
If as Sandra Day O’Connor said, “Prison walls don’t form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” then there ought to be some legitimate reason before a prison administrator is allowed to put an inmate in indefinite solitary confinement. If a prison administrator can transfer any inmate to a supermax and keep him there indefinitely based solely on his “professional judgments about the inmate's probable future behavior,” then no provision of the Constitution applies to prisoners. The idea of prisoners’ rights is a sham. Under the current system, an administrator can put an inmate in segregation for his politics; he can put an inmate there for his religious convictions; he can put him there simply because he doesn’t like him; he can put an inmate in segregation for any reason he chooses, and the only standard he needs to follow in order to accomplish this is to write on the transfer form, “Inmate assigned to Administrative Segregation because he poses a threat to the good order, discipline and security of the institution.”
A recent issue that has cropped up as a result of inmates challenging their placement in Administrative Segregation, is prison administrators playing with the nomenclature. The designation “Administrative Segregation” has taken on negative connotations as courts have ruled in favor of inmates, so prison administrators have sought to fool the courts and the general public by simply changing the name for solitary confinement. In the past, solitary confinement was called “Disciplinary Segregation” and “Administrative Segregation,” today states have started calling these programs “Special Management Units” or “Special Needs Units.” But the federal government is even more audacious in its lies. Because inmates have challenged their placement in Administrative Segregation, and have asked to be transferred to general population, the BOP has now started calling the basic solitary confinement program at ADX “general population.” If, for example, you were to call the front office here at ADX and ask what type of program I am in, the staff member would reply, “general population.” The courts have noticed this manipulation of nomenclature, so now when dealing with a solitary confinement case they are forced to send an investigator to the prison to examine the actual conditions. And the basic criteria for solitary confinement are 23 hour lockdown, five hours of exercise per week; which is the basic program at ADX.
Because ADX houses a number of politically motivated offenders the staff makes an extra effort to censor communications with the outside world. Some of these militants were involved in ‘high profile” situations, and Washington doesn’t want them using ADX as a soapbox to proselytize or embarrass the regime. Thus mailroom operations here are especially arbitrary and unconstitutional.
Most of the political inmates are under what is called Special Administrative Measures (SAM). Being designated under SAM severs most of your normal communications with the outside world. It’s an effective way of silencing political opponents. SAM is issued after the Attorney General issues a finding that inmate such-and-such is a threat to national security because he may communicate with an international terrorist group, or a hostile foreign government. Prisoners under SAM are allowed only one three-page letter per week, and one 15 minute phone call per month. All communications are limited to attorneys and immediate family members (spouse, children, parents). There is no contact with clergy, distant relatives, friends, and especially no contact with the media. Letters generally take three months to reach loved ones. Newspapers and magazines coming into the institution are at least three months old. Cuffs and leg shackles are applied every time an inmate leaves his cell, including for the maximum of two showers per week.
SAM is a national security device. Courts have upheld it only because it was intended for inmates with a verifiable connection to a foreign government or group. It’s harder for the government to justifiably silence prisoners who lack such foreign connections. That has not stopped them from trying, though. Back in 2005 the BOP proposed new rules for Limiting the Communication of Terrorist Inmates 71 Fed. Reg. 16520-16525. The regulation would have eliminated the review process of SAM. It would have eliminated the six month reviews that are currently necessary to keep an inmate gagged under SAM restrictions. Gone was the need for the Attorney General to prove foreign connections. Basically the BOP was asking for the power to gag any inmate in the system under SAM-like restrictions without having to produce any evidence whatsoever. The language of the proposed regulation showed clearly that its purpose was to stop politically conscious inmates from disseminating their opinions. Unlike the language of SAM, its intent was not to stop terrorists and spies from conspiring to commit illegal acts with persons on the outside. By simply labeling an inmate a “terrorist,” the BOP would have had the power to permanently sever his contacts with the outside world. Also, unlike SAM, the Attorney General would not have had to authorize these restrictions. Any Warden or Regional Director in the BOP could have applied these regulations to any inmate. Fortunately, they never implemented the regulation, because if they had, you would not be reading this right now.
For the political inmate whose connections have grown old, or who was never connected to begin with, the BOP is forced to gag him in the old fashioned way--by creatively applying the rules that govern normal communication.
The mailroom censors inmates in a variety of ways. First, Program Statement 5265.11 gives them a great deal of power to reject correspondence: the Warden may reject material that “depicts or encourages activity that may lead to the use of violence or group disruption,” or “escape plans,” or contains “plans to commit illegal actions.” Stretched to its limit, this rule can be used to censor many things.
Special Mail is a little harder to censor. By law, the BOP must allow non-SAM inmates to correspond with attorneys and qualified representatives of the media using a sealed envelope. This is called “Special Mail.” Rejecting the qualification of those wishing Special Mail access is one way they go about it. Sometimes they’ll reject an attorney’s credentials outright. Other times they claim that a lawyer has circumvented mail rules, and therefore revoke his Special Mail status. But since mail sent to attorneys is restricted to discussing legal issues, they worry less about it. Special Mail to the media is different. ADX will not allow face-to-face interviews with the media. But they are obligated by the Constitution to allow non SAM inmates to send sealed, uncensored mail to qualified representatives of the media (P.S. 1480.05). To stop this form of communication with the media, the BOP limits the number of letters to a particular news organization, or they reject the news organization’s credentials. If you send more than one letter to a news outlet, they will charge you with “acting as a reporter,” which is prohibited. I’ve had three of these rejections, one for GQ Magazine because it is an “entertainment magazine,” according to the BOP.
When the mailroom can’t find a reason to reject a letter, they sometimes throw the letter away. There is virtually no way to track a letter. Sending it Certified Mail or Return Receipt doesn’t help. Regular mail is given to the evening guards, and Special Mail is given to the counselors. It is then taken to the mailroom, where it is read and censored. Only after this is the letter handed over to the Post Office. Until the letter reaches the Post Office there is no way to trace it. The evening guards, the counselors, and the mailroom staff are free to dispose of it at will. You have no recourse if a letter doesn’t reach its destination. If you file an Administrative Remedy on a missing letter, they invariably answer, “you provide no proof that the letter was mailed.”
Conditions at ADX obviously amount to cruel and unusual punishment. But then again the concept of cruel and unusual punishment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” (Trop v. Dulles), and a country full of Jerry Springer fans is hardly "maturing." Nevertheless, there are two areas of ADX that clearly violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment: Provisions for exercise and the toxic impact of solitary confinement on mental health.
Outdoor exercise is the only chance we have for contact with other inmates and the outside environment. A few years ago two inmates were beaten to death by other inmates on the yards at ADX. In each case they were taken to the floor and their heads stomped against the concrete. After that the Warden had an excuse to do away with group exercise. He locked the institution down and started building single person exercise cages. The first cages lasted about a year. His Majesty didn’t like these cages, so he ordered up a new bunch. Two years were spent building, tearing down and building new cages. I came here in the midst of the Warden’s cage building program. And for the first eight months, we went to the yard less than once a month.
The “yard” is anything but the picturesque place the word conjures up. It is a fully enclosed concrete hole that looks like a giant kidney-shaped pool without any water in it. Stretching over the top of it is chain link fence resting on huge I-beams. Inside are little 10’ by 10’ dog kennel style cages. One cage per customer. No mountain, bush, tree or blade of grass is visible from the yard, just the sky. The cages have just enough room to do aerobic exercises. Other than the opportunity to breathe fresh air and feel the sunshine on your skin, the outside cages are just cells that are open to the sky.
The indoor exercise rooms, where inmates spend most of their exercise time, have a little more room, and there is a pull-ups bar bolted to the center of the floor, but essentially they are just empty rooms. Handballs or basketballs, or any other type of game or diversion, are not allowed. Thus the provisions for exercise at ADX are really not provisions at all, just solitary cells in different locations.
Then there is the psychological impact of solitary confinement. Professionals who have studied the effects of solitary confinement on supermax inmates say that a high percentage develop severe depression, anxiety, paranoia and other mental illnesses. And the suicide rate in supermax is many times higher than in general population prisons. Some of these psychological conditions become chronic and stay with the inmates even after they leave supermax. Dr. Grassian’s study of supermax inmates at California’s Pelican Bay prison is significant (Madrid v. Gomez). There have been some favorable court rulings on this issue, mostly having to do with housing in supermax prisoners who are already diagnosed with mental illness. Again, the government’s own Program Statement 5100.07 says emphatically that mentally ill inmates should never be confined at ADX. Like every other rule, the government ignores this one too. In my opinion, at least 40 percent of the inmates at ADX are suffering from some serious mental illness, and require psychotropic drugs to control their symptoms. One inmate on the range above mine attempts suicide every few months. The guy two cells down craps in his shower and uses the feces to finger paint his walls. Another walks around naked all day. And several have lost all hope and stay in their cells all year round. Even when given the opportunity to go out to the yard, they refuse. Some have been in their cells for several years.
The only time these recluses leave their cells is during the occasional shakedown, when they are dragged out by force. During the last shakedown they put one of these guys in the execise cage next to mine while they went through our cells. His beard and hair were tangled and matted and unwashed. His skin was white and pasty. He smelled like a farm animal. The whole time he sat in the far corner of the cage, shivering as if he were hypothermic. But the BOP insists that such inmates are sane and healthy.
Paranoia is endemic here. According to one inmate I spoke to in the yard awhile back, the government has implanted a computer chip in his brain. A team of CIA agents now monitors his thoughts around the clock, he said. Another inmate is convinced the government has tunneled under his cell. And they use the tunnels to inject cancer-causing substances into his water lines. At night he crawls around on his belly listening for the agents.
The mental health issue goes back to the due process issue: if the government has no legitimate reason for putting an inmate in supermax, they ought not be allowed to expose an otherwise mentally healthy person to this psychologically toxic environment (Gates v. Cook). Unless a prisoner is assaultive or a chronic threat to staff or other inmates, there is no penological reason to keep him here indefinitely. Putting an inmate in a psychologically toxic environment, when it has been proven that a high percentage of such inmates experience permanent psychological damage, is similar to putting inmates in a cell where the blankets are infected with hepatitis and other infectious diseases (Hutto v. Finney). Absent an objective reason for confining an inmate at ADX, the BOP should at the very least have to set a time limit on keeping him here.
Prison is nothing more than a miniature police state, and staff members are nothing more than miniature tyrants. A few are “benevolent” tyrants; most are not. Prison staffers are generally divided in to guards (“bulls”) and the administrators (“suits”). The bulls handle security; the suits handle administration. Generally, guards are recruited from small town working class people, or from inner-city minorities. It’s a job that pays better than WAL-MART, and that is the only reason they do it. Your typical bull did a hitch in the military. Rather than take a job at WAL-MART after his discharge, he took a few corrections classes down at the local community college and got on with the BOP. After a little night school, some bulls move on to become suits, but most administrators had a little college before coming to work for the BOP.
For the first few years they try to be fair and treat the inmates with some dignity. The lower ranking bulls are like this. But after years working in the prison system, their attitude tends to change. Most who stay become processors. The job is monotonous. It’s the same routine every day. Their job basically consists of micromanaging the behavior of people with severe behavior problems, who are forced to live in little concrete boxes all day. Naturally, there is a great deal of hostility emanating from the boxes. Prisoners throw crap on the guards, spit on them, attack them, file frivolous lawsuits against them. Staffers have to endure curses and complaints all day. From their perspective there is no reason for any of it. “Nothing is good enough for these convicts,” they think. “They’re just a pack of animals.”
To survive, the processor grows a thick skin. The inmates are no longer people with needs, dignity and pains. They are objects. The job is a process. Prisoners are objects in the process. Do the process and get back to your real life on the outside, is the processor’s attitude. He ignores the curses as well as the cries for help. He no longer hears the banging or the legitimate complaints. He invests as much concern in the prisoners as he would a box down at WAL-MART. He has a set of procedures and that is the only thing he concerns himself with. He ignores inmates in obvious pain, walks past inmates on the verge of death, jokes about the convict who hanged himself. There is an ordinariness to his kind of evil. I’m reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s words about guards in the Russian gulags who used to torture inmates with an electric field telephone, and then go home to kiss their children good night. Probably the majority of prison staffers are processors.
There is another minority who are outright sadists. The processor does the job for a paycheck; the sadist does it for pleasure. Sadism is the mark of a small soul. It’s easy to spot one: in authority he is a bully; in subordination he is a lackey.
The program at ADX gives full rein to the sadist. In general population prisons, the prisoners do most of the work. They prepare the food, do the laundry, deliver the library books, etc. The guards supervise the inmates. The prisoners are allowed to take care of some of their needs. The disconnect between inmates and staff reduces the friction. And the sadist has less opportunity to indulge his predilections. But the inmates at ADX are not allowed to work. They are forced to sit in their cells all day, while the bulls and suits wait on all their needs. Everything the inmate needs comes and goes through the door slot. The bulls hand out the food trays, and pick them up. They gather the dirty laundry and hand it back clean the next day. Legal work, law books, mail, cleaning supplies, phone calls--staff services all this stuff. Forcing them to wait on the prisoners increases the friction. The bulls start to feel like room service. They resent having to handle dirty laundry, and the listen to the incessant complaints. “I’m supposed to be the authority figure here,” the bull says. “These bastards ought to be waiting on me. I’ve watched every episode of 24 and seen every Dirty Harry film, and I can’t recall Jack Bauer or Harry Callahan ever picking up the dirty laundry of some terrorist.” A hostile dynamic develops: inmates who need things, and staff that resents having to bring them.
Most staffers go through the process, giving and taking what is on the list, nothing more and nothing less. But the sadist believes he must show the inmates who is boss, he must rectify this seemingly lopsided relationship. He quickly realizes that he controls the inmate's supply line. He can choke it off or poison it any time he wants. He can spit in the food, delay medical care, deny exercise, throw the mail away. Feeling an extra bit of resentment, he can squeeze you in the bars. For the inmate it’s like being trapped in a motel with evil room service--more like Motel Hell than Holiday Inn.
The bull has the power to strip search you any time he wants. He can shake down your cell and confiscate anything that strikes his fancy. If he really wants to, he can beat you to a pulp while you’re handcuffed, and later claim that you tried to attack him. And he can give you an Incident Report (“shot”). Incidents can range from “disruptive behavior,” “insolence,” “disobeying a direct order,” “unsanitary cell environment,” to “assaulting staff with a weapon.” Liberally applied, a bull can give you an Incident Report for hanging your towel on the bars, repairing a torn sock, not making your bed, or using a disrespectful tone of voice with him. Or, he can simply make the whole Incident up. Penalties range from losing your property and commissary privileges, to a 60 day stay in the “hole.” Every Incident Report you receive buries you deeper into the supermax, making you ineligible for transfer to a general population prison for at least another year. You can end up spending the rest of your life at ADX for incidents like not making your bed.
Prisoners have almost no due process rights, when charged with an Incident Report. Normally, there are no witnesses to the Incident. It’s the staff member’s word against yours. In any dispute of this kind the BOP always sides with staff. The BOP is a closed system, bulls and suits cover one another’s backs. When confronted with staff misconduct, the inmate's only recourse is to file a civil rights complaint in federal court--this after a five month grievance process (Administrative Remedies) that he is required to go through within the BOP system. Administrative Remedies are rubberstamped with “Request Denied.” Once in court the inmate faces an uphill battle. Courts have historically taken a hands off approach when it comes to prison issues. Unless a staff member is stupid enough not to cover his tracks, the chances of his being held accountable for anything are slim to none. At most a judge might issue an injunction, ordering the prison to do or refrain from doing something. The first question prison administrators ask themselves when confronted with an injunction is, “How can we get around this?” The courts are powerless to enforce injunctions. The only oversight on prisons comes from the executive and the legislative, both beholden to constituents who couldn’t care less about a bunch of “belly-aching convicts.” Thus American prisons are little fiefdoms, run by little tyrants, who literally get away with murder sometimes.
As the bulls with souls in the system quit, the prisons are left in the hands of the processors and sadists. The processors just want to get home, so the sadist takes the initiative and consequently he controls prison policy. In here, he is the law. The sadist begins to believe that society has appointed him to act as its avenger. His job, he believes, is not to keep the prisoners from getting over the wall. The gates, cameras and bars will do that. No, his job is to inflict punishment on the inmates. As one of ADX’s prominent sadists once told me, “If you’re getting along with the staff, then they are not doing their job.” The sadist shaves his head into a military high and tight. On the outside his family life is dismal. He has a couple of ex-wives hooking him for child support. His kids hate him. On weekends he drinks himself into a stupor watching pornography and WWE Smackdown. The television that he spends so much of his time watching tells him that ADX houses the “worst of the worst.” He just can’t wait to get back to work on Monday morning so he can show these “bad” men how tough he is. Outside these prison walls, he is a loser; inside he is a god.
Abuses are frequent with such individuals in charge. One inmate decided to go on a diet to improve his health. In conjunction he started running in place for exercise. One day after a particularly grueling exercise routine he began to feel faint. He finally fell to the floor. Using his arms, he finally managed to pull himself up onto the stool and push the distress button, which alerted the guards. But it was an hour before the Physician’s Assistant (PA) finally arrived. In the meantime, the inmate had passed out on the floor and vomited all over himself. Looking through the windows at him passed out on the floor, the PA smiled and told the guard that the inmate was “faking.” He walked off. The guard knew better. He went over the PA’s head and pleaded with the prison doctor to come down to the unit. By the time the doctor arrived, the prisoner was in cardiac arrest. The doctor worked fast and resuscitated him. He also diagnosed the problem as a sodium deficiency. The inmate owes his life to the out-of-channels action of the guard.
Another inmate down the hall cracked a molar while eating dinner. This exposed part of his jawbone and left a huge bone spur tearing into his cheek. The pain was excruciating. But the only thing the PA would give him for the pain was Ibuprofin. And it was four days before he saw the dentist. Using an untrained records secretary to assist him, the dentist managed to pull the offending molar and file down the jawbone. But it was not enough. Bone was still exposed. The spur was still tearing into his cheek. And the pain was still excruciating. But the dentist prescribed Ibuprofin.
Infection set in a few days later. The inmate's neck swelled up like a cantaloupe, making it nearly impossible for him to eat. He had to smash his food, mix it with water, and then drink it down, with half of it ending up on the floor. He would scream for hours, but the guards never came. A month of pain later, the doctor finally prescribed penicillin to kill the infection. Again, he prescribed Ibuprofin for the pain.
Even after all this the bone spur was still tearing into his cheek. He could wait no longer, so he decided to operate on himself. Using a pair of toenail clippers, he cut the offending bone spur off. This story illustrates the prevailing wisdom in the prison: stay as healthy as possible, because the staff will make the “cure” more painful than the disease.
Life being what it is at ADX, suicides are common. One inmate recently tried to kill himself. Tying a sheet around his neck, he climbed up to the second story window in the inside exercise cage and tied off on the bars. Then he jumped. Prisoners in the adjoining cages saw what was happening. One stood there smiling. Another inmate pushed his distress button, alerting the guards. Walking down the range and into the exercise cage, the bulls looked up at the inmate hanging there as if they were there to change a burned out light bulb. The inmate's face was bulging and purple; feces and urine were running down his pant leg and out onto the floor. Finally one of the bulls put the inmate's legs into a bear hug, while the other climbed up with a pocket knife to cut him down. The sheet snapped as soon as he lay the knife blade on it. The inmate doubled over, plowing his head into the concrete floor--BAM! The bulls looked at each other as if they’d accidentally dropped a sofa while moving furniture. The doctor arrived just in time to resuscitate him. They strapped the inmate to a gurney and wheeled him out. The two bulls who had cut him down then went over to talk to the inmate who had first alerted them. “Why did you push the distress button,” one of them asked. "You should have let him hang. At the very least, you should have waited a few more minutes."
Lately there has been an extra amount of tension at ADX. The BOP has been applying budget cuts over the past three years, and laying off staff. Resources for inmates have been severely cut. About 25 percent of the staff has been sent to the unemployment line. And the workload for those that are left has been increased. The days of doughnuts and coffee are over. In the battle over limited resources, the inmates come off at the bottom, of course. We have no bargaining power, but the guards do. The guards cannot strike, so they resort to other tactics. They use the inmates as pawns in their little war with the BOP. What they do is provoke the inmates. The inmates react violently. This produces Incident Reports. The guards’ union then uses the increased number of Incident Reports as leverage in their negotiations with the government. “Look, the number of incidents has increased,” they say. “The inmates are out of control. Inmates are also dying because we don’t have enough staff to answer sick call requests, to hand out medicine, or to transport inmates to the hospital for scheduled operations. We simply don’t have enough guards. Any day now we could have a riot, or an escape. We need more staff, more security equipment, more money.”
The guards manufacture these incidents. It’s really a simple matter. They know the inmates; they know which buttons to push. Exercise is canceled. Mail is delayed for months. Requests for medical care go unanswered. The inmates get angry. Crap is thrown. Property is destroyed. Guards are attacked. Inmates kill themselves. Lawsuits are filed. The guards’ union compiles all this stuff and takes it to the BOP. If that doesn’t work, and so far it hasn’t, they take it to the media. Several dozen stories have been done on the plight of the poor overworked guards at ADX. Scott Pelley’s 60 Minutes piece in September of 2007 was the latest. While the Warden refused to allow Pelley to interview inmates, the representative of the guards’ union showed up on the program with a lion’s list of grievances. But it’s the inmates who are really suffering. However, until the bulls get what they want, they will continue to step on the inmates.
The recent takedown of an inmate on my range is a good example of how the technique works. This inmate is not the brightest bulb in the box. He has no money, no family, no teeth. Mentally unstable, he has a long history of tearing cells to pieces. Over the years he has racked up over $50,000 in damages. But with a minimum of maintenance he is easily kept under control. Give him his daily exercise, food and his monthly stamps and he is fine. Take any of them away, and he’ll turn into the Demolition Man.
The pressure had been building for weeks. Outside exercise was cut. Food was reduced to bagged lunches. Then it was the stamps. Indigent inmates are given five first class stamps per month to write their family. Being indigent, this inmate needs stamps to communicate with the outside. One day instead of giving him his monthly stamps the Counselor walked by his cell. The inmate called out to him, but the Counselor kept walking. That was it; he'd had enough. He went to work on the innocent cell. BANG! SMASH! BOOM!--for three hours straight. The noise was ungodly. He rendered that cell into a pile of plexiglass shards and concrete rubble. The shower, table, bed, windows--all were worked over like a delinquent gambler.
The bulls up in the central room were well aware of what was going on. The Counselor had deliberately provoked the incident. But knowing that a demolished cell makes for a better Incident Report, they sat back and waited for him to finish.
The Lieutenant finally arrived with his extraction team in tow. “Are you going to cuff-out for me?” asked the Lt. “Or, are we going to have to come in and get you?”
The inmate cursed and shouted and threw his rebar spear at the extraction team. Having had extensive experience being gassed and beaten by the extraction teams, he agreed to cuff-out. The bulls cuffed him through the door slot and pulled him out of he cell, smashing his face against the exercise cage window across the hall. Blood from his nose ran down his chest and his legs and did a zigzag pattern on the floor.
He’ll spend the next month down in the “hole” in one of the dry cells. They’ll strip him of his property and clothes and give him a padded suicide gown. He’ll have no bed, no blanket, no toilet, no water--just a bucket to relieve himself in. If he bangs again, they’ll strap him spread-eagle to a bare concrete slab. And all of this over five stamps.
Another inmate was given the same treatment recently. Like the Demolition Man, this inmate is easily provoked. He was scheduled to go out to the exercise yard one day, but instead the bulls put him in one of the indoor exercise rooms. Asking why, he was told that he had a separation on one of the other inmates who was also scheduled to go into the yard that day. (A separation is an administrative measure used to keep two inmates apart who have a history of conflict with each other. They are rarely used as intended.) From now on he and the other inmate would have to alternate between the outdoor cages and indoor rooms. Thus this inmate's outdoor exercise was arbitrarily cut in half.
He started kicking the steel door of the exercise room and yelling over and over, “I ain’t got no separation on that dude. It’s my day to go out.”
“Stop kicking the door or you’re going to the ‘hole,’” said the bull.
BAM! BAM! BAM!--he smashed the door, yelling, “I ain’t got no separation on that dude. It’s my day to go out.”
Twenty minutes of this and the unit gate opened and the heavily armored extraction team arrived. First, the Lieutenant tried out his negotiating skills: “Are you going to cuff-out? If we have to come in there, it’s going to hurt.”
Again the inmate kicked the door, BAM! BAM! BAM!--yelling, “I ain’t got no separation on that dude. It’s my day to go out.”
Bean bags or gas, the Lieutenant wondered. The exercise room has a high ceiling and it would have taken a while to fill the room up with enough gas to choke him out, so he went with the bean bags. The bean bag gun fires a projectile capable of breaking bones or tearing an eye out. Getting down on one knee and taking aim at the slot, one guard prepared to fire. The Lt. opened the slot and the guard proceeded to track his prey. The inmate was running back and forth, trying to make the bull miss. BOOM! The first shot missed, shattering against the wall.
The guard calmly reloaded. This time the inmate tried desperately to climb the bars covering the huge windows. When he was about six feet up, the bull squeezed off another shot. The round caught him in the small of the back, sending him crashing to the concrete below. “Are you going to cuff-out now,” asked the Lieutenant.
Blood was running down his scraped leg as the inmate got to his feet. “I ain’t got no separation on that dude. It’s my day to go out!” he screamed in desperation.
The Lieutenant nodded to the shooter, who loaded another round and took aim. BOOM! This one caught the inmate in the belly, doubling him over face down on the concrete. His eyes were closed, his face twisted in pain.
“That one gave him a new belly button,” said the shooter. The Lieutenant gave him another round. But before he could load the round, the inmate got to his feet and stumbled to the door, putting his hands through the slot. Cuffs were slapped on. He was pulled out of the room and leg chains applied. As they dragged him out of the unit, the inmate was yelling, “I ain’t got no separation on that dude. It’s my day to go out!” Of course, the bulls didn’t answer.
It is incomprehensible to people on the outside that someone would go through all this trouble over two dollars in stamps or a couple of hours of outdoor exercise. But this sort of thing happens every day at ADX. In fact, it is often the simplest of things that cause the most violent outbursts. This is because other than our minds all we posses in here are the simplest of things. Since most inmates are simple of mind, their simple material possessions are vital to maintaining their sanity and sense of self. Possibilities shrink in here. At one extreme is your six books; eleven pictures; five magazines; crossword puzzles; five stamps; and three hours of outdoor exercise per week. At the other extreme is an empty, dry cell, where you are strapped down with your rear end hanging out of a filthy suicide gown. Going from one extreme to the other is completely in the hands of a bunch of sadistic little tyrants. The sense of being powerless is overwhelming. Humans crave freedom. Not being able to control even the simplest of things is devastating to the human spirit. Living like this year after year with no end in sight causes most inmates to react in one of two ways: catatonia or rage. About half slip into a semi-catatonic state. They close themselves off in their cells and sleep all day. Eventually they either kill themselves, go completely insane, or die prematurely from diabetes or heart disease. The other half hate. Some are able to control their hate or conceal it behind a calm exterior. Others lose control every few months and bounce back and forth between the regular units and the dry cells of the “hole.”
. . .
Supermax is another monument to America’s failed policies. Intended to clean up the prison system by segregating gangbangers and predators, supermaxes are now used to house many of their victims. Gangs are still on the yards of the general population prisons. And violence is just as prevalent now as it was back in the 1970s and 1980s. Worse still, supermaxes now double as mental institutions and political prisons. Rather than spend money on institutions for the mentally ill, the government now locks them down in supermaxes and feeds them pills three times a day through the door slot. And far from fitting the profile of the predatory inmate, the politicals, who now make up a significant part of ADX’s population, are the best behaved prisoners in their system.
But if you ask the prison administrators about supermax, they’ll tell you it is the best tool they have for controlling violence within the system. They’ll talk about “terrorists,” they’ll use catchphrases like “the worst of the worst.” Then they’ll put out a photographic lineup of notorious inmates to scare the little old ladies in Peoria. But their real motives for keeping supermax have little to do with security. It’s all about jobs and money. Compared to a general population prison a supermax costs the taxpayers about twice as much to operate. And the ratio of guards to inmates is almost double that of other institutions. So don’t expect the administration to start denigrating the supermax program soon. From their perspective it is a cash cow.
But to the inmate supermax is a strange sort of Limbo, a reflection of the lies and hypocrisy that this country has come to represent. On the one hand, the government won’t pull your fingernails out or punch holes through your kneecaps with a cordless drill, because, as John McCain says, “America doesn’t engage in torture.” But, on the other hand, they won’t give you even the semblance of a natural, productive life, because that would be “coddling a terrorist.” So you end up lying on a concrete slab hour after hour, day after day, year after year--with no end in sight. After a few years, you come to realize that the only differences between the cordless drill and the supermax are superficial. Both are instruments used to torture. In a recent interview with Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes, a former warden at ADX described conditions here as “A clean version of hell.” The prison administrators make sure it is hell, but they also make sure it is nice and clean. Americans associate torture with some dingy third world prison, not a clean Colorado supermax. The fact that the supermax looks clean helps the soccer-moms sleep better at night, believing that “America doesn’t engage in torture.”
April 23, 2008
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