Boston Review / By Lance Tapley
To little public outcry, tens of thousands of citizens are being held in horrific conditions in super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons.
Editor’s Note: Courageous WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning is reportedly suffering some of the same horrible experiences detailed in the article below, including 23 hours a day of solitary confinement, which has been labeled torture by numerous prison and psychological experts.
“They beat the shit out of you,” Mike James said, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.
“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”
Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.
James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantánamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration— somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services. The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.
In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State University criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative. In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units”—for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail inmates are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women also are kept in supermax conditions, but apparently no one has estimated how many.) Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary-confinement sections. Although the roughness in what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.
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