In the early 2000s Delaware spent tens of millions of dollars to develop supermax (SHU) and maximum security (MHU) buildings. These buildings house nearly 1,000 prisoners — a robust portion of Delaware's prison population. Destined for these torture chambers were supposedly the most unruly and depraved individuals: those with violent crimes and violent prison records; the kind of people widely considered to be beyond rehabilitation. The problem is, Delaware doesn't have many prisoners who fall into that category. So while some of the few prisoners who fit that description are in the SHU, it is filled mostly with prisoners guilty of only minor infractions such as using drugs or getting into minor scuffles. Even infractions for innocuous "contraband" can earn a prisoner enough "points" to be sent to the SHU.
In the SHU prisoners spend all but 3 hours a week locked in their cells. They come out for "rec" 3 times a week for 45 minutes each time, in a cage roughly 200 square feet in size, followed by a 15-minute shower. They have no contact with other prisoners and are handcuffed whenever they leave their cells. The SHU possesses an eerily Machiavellian structure where everything is incentivized, from how many phone calls and visits a prisoner can have each month, to how much commissary they may purchase, and even whether or not they are allowed a TV or radio. All prisoners entering the SHU start out with the barest of privileges (if they can be called that) and may earn an increase in their "level" every 90-120 days. If a prisoner fails to graduate to his third level (out of four) he will likely remain in the SHU for an additional year. On the lowest levels prisoners are severely isolated from the outside world, being allowed just one phone call and visit each month. Commissary is limited to $15-$25 every other week.
Implicit in nearly every interaction with the guards is the potential, the threat, of violence; every breath is a potential disciplinary infraction, or "write-up." Many rules are either unknown or go unenforced, making for a milieu where a guard could enter, quite literally, any cell in the SHU and find a reason to write up its inhabitant. If you have more than three books at any given time it could be a write-up, or you put water in your Pepsi bottle, or put a picture of your family in your locker, or hang wet clothes up to dry. Almost anything can be considered "non-dangerous contraband." Any guard has the power to keep a prisoner from seeing or talking to his family, a power not infrequently abused. This kind of isolation and control is maddening for the individuals who live under its influence; any refusal to comply with these instruments of violence — any lack of submission — can be met with a can of mace followed by beatings, restraints, and time in the "hole."
It is not too late for Delaware — or any other state, for that matter — to acknowledge and fix their mistake, converting these buildings into "normal" medium or medium-high security housing. Recidivism has not declined, and neither has the number of institutional disciplinary reports. Meeting violent offenders with more violence, along with mental and physical torture, is not an effective method of reform. It will only make the prisoners more fluent in the language of violence. The millions of dollars spent could have been more wisely invested in productive programming and treatment, methods that would actually improve the quality of life of these prisoners. The SHU costs more than twice the amount to operate as ordinary prisoner housing. Converting these buildings would free up funds that could be more wisely spent on means to reduce recidivism, instead of in a way that only worsens the lives of prisoners, and serves to perpetuate a lifestyle of violence and crime. Prisoners released directly from the SHU are frequently angry, bitter and full of resentment. Studies have shown that these individuals are at a much higher risk for recidivism than those released from general population.
The SHU not only allows the administration to control the prisoners within its confines, but also the prisoners in general population. They are able to control and bully the prisoners-at-large with the mere presence, the threat, of the SHU. Looming in the background is the implicit threat that if you step out of line, even for small infractions, you may ultimately be carted off to the slow-motion torture chambers. This provides great leverage against the prison community.
Corruption amongst, and abuse by, the guards is not some abstract concept, but rather a pervasive, daily reality throughout the prison. This manifests itself in a number of ways from filing illegitimate disciplinary reports, to provoking or sanctioning physical altercations between prisoners. Guards will disseminate information that leads to violence, such as if a certain prisoner is a sex offender or a snitch. On more than one occasion I've witnessed a guard provoke a prisoner verbally, and taunt him until he had a reaction, which was then used as an excuse to assault the prisoner, claiming the prisoner acted aggressively.
There is almost nothing a prisoner can do to address such abuses. A group of prisoners that does manage to unite in an effort to organize, make their voices heard or address social concerns will quickly be exposed by some informant (often from within their own circle) and then targeted by the guards and administration. Something will be "found," or some reason invented to have them moved or sent to the SHU. The guards may simply make something up and call it an "investigation." And why not? Nobody is going to stop them. All the power to do so has been stripped and suppressed.
These deplorable conditions create an environment that often feels helpless and insurmountable to the prisoners who live through it. They are being oppressed and controlled, mistreated and abused, on a daily basis. They have no means of addressing these abuses — even the grievance procedure is hopelessly flawed, not permitting the prisoners to grieve the conduct of the guards, or any procedure whatsoever. They recognize that they are being subjected to conditions that surpass mere punishment for their crimes. They are playing in a rigged game. The parole board isn't actually there to help prisoners obtain their freedom; it's there to give the illusion that it is possible, so that prisoners may be controlled. The few that are successful will emerge as scarred, changed men, living with the knowledge and pain of what they were forced to endure, and the daily suffering that continues by the people they left behind.
Readers may wonder why they should care about how prisoners are treated. The majority of them did, after all, commit some sort of crime. But it is no secret that the United $tates imprisons more of its citizens than any other country, with a prisoner population numbering more than 2.2 million, which is 25% of the world prisoner population. We breed criminals to feed into the prison industrial complex for profit. It is a new form of segregation and slavery, done under the guise of justice. We should care because people who would otherwise be productive, contributing members of society are being indoctrinated and conditioned to perpetuate the revolving doors of recidivism. We are not "correcting" bad or criminal behavior; we are not reforming lives or serving justice. What we are doing is abusing millions of our very own, our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, our neighbors. These people seldom come away from the experience cleansed of their criminal inclination or reformed in any productive way. We should care because if this system of injustice operated the way it was intended, we could actually reduce crime and make our neighborhoods, our country, safer. We should care because while most think it won't happen to them, injustice may strike anyone at almost any time. It could very easily be your loved one on the opposite side of the razor wire. And in that moment it will be no consolation that the general public will find them deserving of the mistreatment they will endure at the hands of our deeply flawed (and too often corrupt) "justice" system.
MIM(Prisons) responds: This essay from our comrade in Delaware does a good job exposing the criminal injustice system as a tool of social control rather than a system for punishment and rehabilitation. In particular, the uses of long term isolation, and the effects on those locked up this way, are important reasons behind our campaign to shut down all prison control units.
However, we do not agree with the analysis of the "prison industrial complex" (PIC) or the claim that the United $tates is locking up people for profit. The term PIC implies this profit motive, and it's just factually incorrect. While individuals and some private corporations do make lots of money off the prison system, this is not money that comes from prisoner labor but rather a subsidy from the government which is footing the bill for the imprisonment of so many men and wimmin. The rest of this writer's article actually underscores the point that prisons are for social control, not profit.
So while we agree with this comrade's appeal to Amerikans to join the struggle against the criminal injustice system, we don't think that the general public will join up because injustice might strike them at any time. This injustice is actually very targeted to oppressed nations within U.$. borders. The general white nation Amerikan has more interest in rallying behind expanding prisons in order to preserve their national privilege. We call on Amerikans to join the struggle, but not out of self interest, rather because it is in the best interest of humynity to put an end to national oppression and social control.