Supermax prisons: 21st century asylums

From Al Jazeera
By Helen Redmond
Friday, August 5, 2011

Solitary confinement in the new dungeons of the US trigger mental illness in prisoners.

Supermax prisons: 21st century asylums via Al Jazeera
Lucy Flores, whose husband spent four years in Pelican Bay, at a rally in support of inmates on hunger strike (REUTERS)

The recent hunger strike at Pelican Bay supermax prison in California exposed for three weeks the carefully planned and executed barbarism of life in supermax America. The utter desperation of the human cargo behind the concertina wire, buried deep inside concrete coffins was gut wrenching and heart breaking. Hunger strikes are a tactic of last resort for the completely subjugated; a slow, painful, non-flammable version of self-immolation.

Brian Nelson, a survivor of 12 years in solitary confinement at Tamms supermax prison in Illinois, understands the conditions that drove the men in Pelican Bay to stop eating. Distraught and anxious, Nelson paced in his cell for more than ten hours a day – causing severe, bloody blisters on the soles of his feet. He tried to hang himself. In the year 2000, Nelson went on hunger strike for 42 days with four other prisoners to protest many of the same conditions that exist at Pelican Bay.

The demands of Tamm’s hunger strikers were similar, too: better food, shoes with arches, appropriate clothing, access to education, inmates with mental illness be transferred out, bilingual staff and abolition of the “renunciation policy” – the “debriefing policy” related to gangs that Pelican Bay prisoners demanded be abolished. Guards tried to break the hunger strike at Tamms by leaving carts of fried chicken and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on the wing. The delicious smells didn’t break Nelson.

Supermax prisoners’ daily lives are chock full of alienating and undignified experiences, so empty of positive human interaction, thousands are willing to risk death than endure such inhumane conditions. That alone speaks volumes about the reality of life in supermax prisons.

One of the most humiliating aspects of life for inmates are the frequent strip searches – forced to be naked, ordered to bend over by guards and spread the buttocks apart to have the anus inspected for contraband while coughing. Strip searches are the old normal. The photos of nude prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq shocked the world, but to be stripped naked for hours or even days is standard operating procedure in supermaxes.

Nelson explained: “Every time you leave your cell you’re strip searched … They do this to degrade and shock you…Sometimes the guards would make ‘homosexual’ comments like: ‘Hey baby, spread your cheeks’. Darrell Cannon, a survivor of a nine-year stretch in Tamms, described the strip search: ‘They tell you to open your mouth, raise your tongue, hold your hands up, they go through your fingers and toes and tell you to turn around and spread your cheeks up against the chuckhole … It’s degrading to have two other human beings looking at you like you’re some kind of specimen. It is extremely degrading.”

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