Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

State Prison Systems Emulate Marion Control Unit

By Faw Dowker and Glen Good

Inspired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons' seven year experiment with a super-maximum security "control unit" prison at Marion in southern Illinois, state prison systems across the country have begun operating their own similar facilities. Control unit prisoners are subjected to nearly round-the-clock cell confinement and other draconian "security measures." Together, these measures impose on prisoners a regimen of near-total isolation, inescapable boredom, and often, physical brutality. This proliferation of control unit prisons is accelerating as the nation enters the third decade of spiraling imprisonment rates and a more openly vindictive administration of "justice." Poor people, and particularly people of color, bear an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of the resulting misery, both behind the prison walls and in the society at large.

The control unit concept was first implemented in H-Unit at Marion Federal Penitentiary in 1972, when prisoners protesting the guards' beating of Mexican prisoner Jesse Lopez were locked in nearly round-the clock isolation for years on end. During the 1970's, the most politicized and resistant prisoners from throughout the federal prison system were transferred to Marion. Their organized resistance, culminating in the longest prison work stoppage in U.S. prison history in 1980 and 1981, led to Bureau of Prisons' plans to convert the entire prison to a control unit. These plans were finally implemented in October 1983. Eight years later, nearly all Marion prisoners spend 22 or more hours each day locked alone in their 8' by 6' cells, which are equipped with a sink, TV, toilet and a concrete bed covered by a thin mattress. All aspects of their physical existence are strictly regimented, and teams of specially trained SORT (Special Operations Response Team) guards stand ready to attack any prisoner who resists in any way. Prisoners may never have contact visits, and to further isolate them from outside support their mail is censored.

Conditions such as those at Marion are being replicated in state control unit prisoners across the country. Many of these prisoners feature their own innovations in controlling and dehumanizing prisoners. At Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit in Crescent City, California, cells have solid steel doors, which are remote-controlled by guards who use loudspeakers to direct prisoners in and out of their cells. At a second California control unit at Corcoran, armed guards patrol the Plexiglas ceilings over the cells and peer in at prisoners through the Plexiglas cell walls. At Missouri's control unit at Potosi, guards use the "double litter restraint," in which the prisoners are encased between two Army-type cots. At Colorado's Centennial Prison near Canon City, where the control unit is being expanded to the entire 336-bed prison, guards are armed with "nut-guns," named for the acorn-size pellets they fire at prisoners. Other known state control unit prisons are at Ionia, Michigan; Southport, New York; McAlester, Oklahoma; Baltimore, Maryland; and Westville, Indiana. Connecticut recently appropriated $27 million for the construction of new control unit prison. Marion itself is scheduled to be replaced in 1993 by a specially constructed, high-technology control unit prison in Florence, Colorado.

The proliferation of control unit prisons comes in the midst of an explosion in the U.S. imprisonment rate, which is now the highest in the world. The prison population has doubled since 1970, and George Bush has promised to double it again during the 1990's. By the year 2000, two million people are expected to be in jail or prison in this country.

Keeping such a huge prison population subdued in the face of increasingly overcrowded and frustrating conditions takes substantial force. That force is provided by control unit prisoners, the "prisons' prisons." Just as Marion silences and suppresses its prisoners, so the other control units are used to isolate any prisoners who might challenge the prison system in any way. Even as the use of these prisons have spread so has prisoner resistance to them, whether in the form of lawsuits or educational work within the prisons or in more dramatic actions, such as the taking of guard hostages at Southport, New York or the extended hunger strike at Westville, Indiana.

This spread of control units was one focus of a nationwide conference held in Chicago last September. The conference, sponsored by the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown and the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War, served a dual purpose: to commemorate the historic rebellion at Attica prison twenty years previously, and to learn about control units and plan for a campaign to abolish them. Two hundred people from all over the United States and Canada attended a stimulating and empowering day of workshops, discussion and film.

Conference attendees decided that to attack control units effectively we should focus attention on the center of the system: the proposed control unit at Florence, Colorado, which is to replace Marion as the ultimate in brutality in the federal prison system. If Florence is stopped, a limit will be set that cannot be crossed. If it is allowed to be built as planned, it will drag conditions in other prisons down with it. Conference participants thus decided on an initial eight month campaign of programs and events, leading up to a National Day of Action in May when demonstrations across the country will demand that the Florence control unit not be built and that all control units be abolished!

INote: The authors are members of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, from which a much longer version of this article is available. They would like to thank the many prisoners who have communicated details of conditions in control units around the country, and welcome correspondence c/o C.E.M.L., P.O. Box 578172, Chicago, Illinois 60657-8172.]

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login