What’s Left to Take Away?

April 16, 2012 | Keramet Reiter, PhD Student, UC Berkeley

Keramet Reiter is a Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation examines the supermaximum security prison boom: the explosion in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s of high-security, intense-deprivation-condition prisons across the U.S.

Keramet Reiter is a Ph.D. candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation examines the supermaximum security prison boom: the explosion in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s of high-security, intense-deprivation-condition prisons across the U.S.

In May, the Sacramento Bee published a series of articles about California’s use of a new and disturbing form of punitive incarceration: Behavioral Management Units (BMUs). (See the series here: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/05/09/2737459/the-public-eye-guards-accused.html?mi_rss=Investigations.) Over the past five years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) quietly opened up a series of these units within six different state prisons specifically to house problem prisoners. CDCR officials say they originally intended the units to provide intensive therapy and anger management programs in an effort to keep problem prisoners out of more restrictive, long-term solitary confinement units elsewhere in the state.

Unfortunately, as with many correctional policies, actual practice diverged sharply from the initial intentions. The Sacramento Bee articles describe multiple incidences of extreme abuse in the BMUs: prisoners being locked into their cells for up to five months, with absolutely no access to the outdoors; mass outdoor strip searching of prisoners in the dead of winter; and prisoners sustaining permanent organ damage after correctional officers beat them.

What the Sacramento Bee series doesn’t mention is that these BMUs actually represent the newest in a long line of CDCR attempts to isolate and segregate problem prisoners, in conditions that are ultimately (and perhaps inevitably?) more abusive than originally intended. In fact, CDCR opened up its first shiny, new prisons explicitly designed to house problem prisoners—the “worst of the worst”—more than twenty years ago, in 1988 and 1989. Corcoran in the Central Valley and Pelican Bay on the northern border with Oregon contained California’s first two modern supermaxes, or Secure Housing Units (SHUs). In these units, corrections department officials said, gang members would be isolated and separated from the general prison population as well as from each other, thereby crippling the gang leadership and reducing violence throughout the prisons. While detained in these units, gang members would be kept alone in small cement-block cells 23 or more hours per day; their only access to the outside world would be an hour a day in another cement-block cell, but one with a ceiling open to the sky. But somewhere between intention and implementation, the policy of isolating prisoners to improve institutional safety went terribly wrong; prisoners suffered wanton beatings and were denied vital medical treatments. Within a few years of Pelican Bay’s opening, prisoners’ rights advocates were suing staff at the institution for creating cruel and unusual conditions and perpetuating extreme abuses. The recent Bee story, in fact, is eerily reminiscent of the news stories about Pelican Bay in the 1990s.

However, California’s first supermaxes, like the BMUs described in the Bee, were allegedly built with the intention of improving conditions and effectiveness. The idea was that prisoners would serve fixed terms (of no more than a few months) in extreme but hygienic solitary confinement, learn their lesson, and be integrated back into the adjoining high security prison yards, where they could again congregate with their fellow prisoners, have visits from family or friends, and participate in religious, therapeutic, and educational programs.

In practice, however, these supermax institutions have functioned to detain prisoners for indefinite periods of time. On average, prisoners spend two years in long-term solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Some prisoners have spent as long as eighteen years or more in solitary confinement there. And, twenty years after they first opened, there is no solid evidence that these supermaxes have either curbed violence in the CDCR or weakened the prison gangs. As one former SHU prisoner told me: “The only thing Pelican Bay . . . succeeded in doing was [creating] a place of achievement for other gang members.” In other words, gang members strive to get to Pelican Bay, because being sent there is a mark of status, proof of a real gang leadership role. Moreover, Corcoran and Pelican Bay alone, although they make up only 5 percent of California’s overall prison population, have accounted for an average of 18 percent of the state’s prisoner homicides and 18 percent of the state’s assaults on correctional officers over the last 10 years. Clearly, neither SHUs nor BMUs provide an adequate answer to the problems with gangs, violence, or overcrowding facing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation today.

In times of economic duress, such as those at present, one must question the wisdom of spending more than $50,000 per prisoner per year to incarcerate people in expensive and psychologically destructive units like SHUs and BMUs. Those funds could better be spent providing actual educational and therapeutic resources to these problem prisoners, with the explicit goal of re-integrating them as quickly as possible back into the general prison population—a setting much less expensive to maintain. Indeed, some states, like Mississippi, have successfully accomplished precisely this kind of re-integration of their supermax prisoners.