"Supermax," America's Homegrown Guantanamos

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/10/2009 08:02:00 PM
Americans are famously enterprising sorts. Yet, it may not always be the case that their products are desirable for them or the rest of the world. Among other brilliant Yankee ideas are: "Let's give mortgages to people who haven't a chance in hell of paying them back!" (ownership society) and "Let's sell collateralized debt obligations to slice and dice risk to those who are able to bear it!" Today, though, we have an even more sinister sort of American industry--the prison-industrial complex. What is still the most readable work on this phenomenon is Eric "Fast Food Nation" Schlosser's article which appeared in the Atlantic in 1998. Tossing people in jail is big business and one that certainly has a lot of growth potential in this day and age.

The US of A is famous for having the world's highest rate of incarceration. (I suppose this is a natural byproduct of Americans' unofficial pastime of shooting each other for the heck of it, but I digress. As President Obama puts it, perhaps many just "cling to guns.") Worse, the emphasis in not often on corrections but on purely punitive measures. The most recent and noteworthy sadistic entry in the (profitable) art of American jailing is the so-called "Supermax" prison. Though not solely an American phenomenon, you shouldn't be surprised that it has reached its fullest expression in incarceration nation. And, like the finest subprime securities, it too is being exported to all ends of the Earth. Purportedly designed to hold the most violent and risky offenders--read: terrorists--recent research here at the LSE by Sharon Shalev finds that it these "Supermax" facilities aren't often used for such purposes. Indeed, many comparatively mild cases of prisoners with mental health issues are condemned to these American Guantanamos. From the press blurb:
Supermax prisons – large prisons designed for holding prisoners in strict and prolonged solitary confinement – officially operate to protect society from its most violent and dangerous criminals but in reality are also used to house petty non-violent offenders and the mentally ill. Those who aren't mentally ill on entering supermax prisons often become so, some after quite short periods of time, and the mental trauma caused by the extreme conditions can lead to individuals, most of whom will be released back into the community, becoming more damaged and aggressive rather than less of a threat to society.

These are some of the arguments made in a new book by Dr Sharon Shalev of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Supermax: controlling risk through solitary confinement calls for an urgent review of the use of solitary confinement as a prison tactic. It is the first book to offer a comprehensive examination of the supermax phenomenon.

An estimated 25,000 prisoners in the United States are currently isolated in a supermax prison and subjected to extreme measures of control, regulation and inspection. These prisons have mushroomed across the United States since the late 1980s and can now be found in 44 states across the US, as well as in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Holland, Peru and South Africa.

Supermax prisoners typically spend 22.5-24 hours a day locked up in small, windowless cells, where they eat, sleep and spend their days isolated from human contact. They only leave their cell for one hour of solitary exercise in a barren concrete yard three times a week, and a 15 minute shower in a shower-cell four times a week. They have no access to vocational programmes, are shackled whenever they leave their cell, and are subjected to regular cell searches, which can involve the use of tear gas or other chemical agents, and dogs. Supermax prisoners may be held in these conditions indefinitely, sometimes for the duration of their natural life.

Dr Shalev said: "Supermax prisons are extreme places which brutalise both prisoners and prison staff. They are excessive, expensive, ineffective, and extremely damaging. And they don't make sense. How can it be necessary to secure prisoners behind ten layers of physical enclosures, to deny them lip balm, hair conditioner and, in one recent case, access to two of Barack Obama's books, in the interest of security?"

One argument supporting the extreme measures is that they are necessary to control the risk posed by dangerous prisoners. But the huge number of prisoners held in supermax prisons runs in the face of this argument and the reality is that many supermax prisoners are petty non-violent offenders who have simply fallen foul of rules and regulations elsewhere in the prison estate, and the mentally ill. In California, for example, a prisoner can be placed in a supermax for "possession of $5 or more without authorisation". And rather than reducing violence, the book argues that supermax prisoners often experience increased irritability, anger and unprovoked violent outbursts. In the absence of contact with others, the violence is often turned against the individual with forms of self-harm prevalent in solitary confinement.

'The practice of solitary confinement has gained considerable media and public attention, and condemnation, in the context of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and America's "War on Terror". But less attention has been paid to the proliferation of supermax prisons in America itself' said Dr Shalev. 'The public may or may not be concerned about the mental well-being of its prisoners, but they should surely be concerned about recidivism rates and the prospects of tens of thousands of prisoners, who have lived in a world devoid of human interaction and human contact, being released from their isolation cells to life alongside others without any preparation for the transition. 'Supermax prisons are expensive, ineffective and they drive people mad. Rather than building more supermax prisons, it is time to acknowledge the failures of solitary confinement and reject its use as a legitimate prison practice in all but the most exceptional circumstances.'
This is an utterly unoriginal idea but think of the United States as one big gated community. The prison-industrial complex is the underbelly of contemporary American inequality and "Supermax" its fullest realization in terms of architecture and surveillance--far surpassing that of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon.

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize committee may have deluded themselves into thinking that gradually closing down Guantanamo Bay improves America's reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world. For those with finite attention spans, this may be true. This book, however tells of another truth that gets insufficient press attention: Guantanamos proliferate throughout the heartland of the United States. There's plenty of material on the subject matter, too.

The great thing about jail as a typically American growth industry is that hard times tend to bring more "clients" to the system. Perhaps unfortunately, customer service makes these folks even worse than when they first came in. Luckily, though, more "customer loyalty" emerges as recidivism rates skyrocket. It's brilliant in a sadistic sort of way--generating business through thick and thin. I guess when all else is going down the tubes Stateside, you might as well make money off of it.