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[Control Units]
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Wastelands: prison control units

When exploring the ethical implications of some socially sanctioned institutions, it is understandable how society at large might not invest due attention to human rights questions that arise based on the severe conditions within prison control units. After all, the ones who are affected may not be society's most beloved individuals and may even be regarded as deserving of less than compassionate treatment.

This logic, however, does not fully encompass the extent of the issues that control units present. Practically speaking, these types of environments inevitably serve as breeding grounds for a wide range of psychological disturbances. What the average person might not realize is that these disturbances manifest themselves in behavior and it is precisely for this reason why people who don't care should.

One specific dynamic that is universally present in inmates who endure long-term isolation is social starvation. Not being exposed to regular social situations creates a profound loss of touch with the world from which they came - the world that bore them. This severed connection can lead to distrust (to the point of extreme paranoia), introversion, and a distorted path of normal, healthy social development.

Anxiety, insecurity, and ultimately, resentment, are also common elements that contribute to an individual's alienation from their community. In fact, isolation is the antithesis of the concept of community and is, in itself, implicative of cruelty and abandonment.

The very term "control unit" is an irony. Yes, while an inmate is housed in one of these places he is under control. However, it is this very "control" that precipitates a wholly negative change in one's character. The inherent coldness of such a barren place demonstrates a disregard for the monstrous effects such a cruelly oppressive environment creates. Instead of nurturing improvement and growth, it actually fosters hostility. It is insanely counterproductive.

Long-term isolation forces inmates to construct elaborate coping mechanisms to deal with the psychologically crippling conditions. It requires an emotional detachment, which is a precursor to antisocial behavior and is not in any way healthy or helpful.

It is for this reason that the notion of control units being effective deterrents to future, disruptive behavior is absolutely illogical to a laughable degree. These coping mechanisms become so entrenched into one's personality, that it completely alters their entire psyche. The process is allowed to continue for so long, that inmates become accustomed to isolation at a hefty expense to their emotional well-being.

Strangely, it can become a perverse measure of mental strength - being able to withstand the crushing weight of isolation as a show to "prove" they cannot be broken, when in fact, this contempt may be evidence that they have already been cruelly affected. It amounts to no less than psychological mutilation - a perpetually self-defeating attitude.

It is difficult to believe that control units have any redeeming qualities. The fact is this: nearly all inmates housed in control units will re-enter prison populations, or in many cases, will be released directly back into society.

Human beings are known for being products of their environments. So what do you get when you subject a person to inhumane conditions and an utterly complete lack of compassion? It appears to be as simple and reliable as working out a mathematical equation. It seems though, if you don't get the answer you were looking for, why would you stick with the same formula?

That's not how progress is made. Reexamination, acknowledgment of mistakes, and the redressing of faults are the key to a healthy, moral society.

- a prisoner at Walpole MA in the Department Disciplinary Unit, March 2004

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