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Control Units: Isolation in 1992

By N.J. Community Relations Program American Friends Service Committee

In 1975, after the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the prisoner's rights movement, Trenton State Prison in New Jersey established an administrative isolation unit for politically dissident prisoners. The Management Control Unit, which now has 96 beds, houses those prisoners who have not broken institutional rules, but who, as a result of their convictions and expressions, are seen to be a threat by the prison administrators. This unit isolates activists and leaders from the prison's general population, as it attempts to reshape their convictions by subjecting them to an extraordinary level of physical control and sensory deprivation. Prisoners in the MCU are denied all the collective activities of normal prison life, have increased surveillance by guards who record their daily activities and regularly search cells and their persons, and suffer the physical abuse of strip searches by guards in riot gear which accompany all recreation and visits. A physical cage has been built on each tier for any activity, such as a hearing or a haircut, which must take place outside the cell.

Although confinement in the Management Control Unit is not defined as punitive, the severe limitations placed upon visits and telephone contact with family members, as well as recreation, and the denial of work, education, law library access, collective religious practice and the fellowship of other prisoners can hardly be seen in any other way. Correspondence and reading materials are carefully scrutinized and many political publications, specifically those with Afro-centric content, are excluded. These conditions are indefinite, although they are reviewed every 90 days, and are imposed without judicial supervision or benefit of counsel.

By reproducing the model of the Federal Correctional Institution at Marion, Illinois, the United States prison system has developed a strategy that evades the Eighth Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment. In 1983, after two guards were killed by prisoners at this high security prison, the warden of FCI Marion declared a state of emergency and instituted a lockdown, or solitary confinement for all prisoners. The Bureau of Prisons brought in 60 riot control officers to 'restore order.'

They wore helmets, masks and no identification tags, and carried clubs with steel beads, called 'rib-spreaders.' The guards still carry these weapons, and the lockdown continues today, after nine years.

The particular history of the MCU in New Jersey is echoed across the country as state and federal prison administrators use the Marion model to extend and develop their own local Control Units. New York and Indiana are two states whose Control Unit prisons have been sites of protest, within the walls and in the streets. In 1992, every state either has constructed or is planning a prison or a unit within a prison based upon the Marion model; these so called Control Units. In their 1991 report, Prison Conditions in the United States , Human Rights Watch found:

"Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the human rights situation in U.S. prisons is a trend we observed that could be labeled 'Marionization'...36 states have followed suit in creating their own super maximum security institutions. The confinement in maxi-maxis is administered by prison officials without independent supervision and leads to a situation in which inmates may in fact be sentenced twice: once in court to a certain period of imprisonment; and the second time, by the prison administration, to particularly harsh conditions. This second sentencing is open-ended limited only by the overall length of an inmate's sentence - and is imposed without the benefit of counsel."

Prison administrators are well pleased with the Marion model, despite its expense. In 1990 Marion employed 380 uniformed guards for a population of 359, at a cost which is several times the national average. The Bureau of Prisons is now building a new Level 6 Control Unit prison in Florence, Colorado, to hold 600 men with all the advances in physical control new technology can offer. The Justice Department was recently forced to deny publicly that they intend to feed prisoners in Florence with robots. All Control Units and Control unit prisons have a high staff to prisoner ratio and are expensive to operate. The regimen of the Control Units and the absence of due process have been upheld by the courts as regulation not punishment.

The fact that the men in the Management Control Unit at New Jersey State Prison are strip searched whenever they leave their cells, even when there is no contact with anyone but prison staff, and that they are held in restraints and handcuffs for intra-prison hearings is but one example of the arbitrary use of punitive measures. Control Units are clearly punishment, and they embody the central threat to human rights the constitution was intended to check arbitrary state power. The men of the MCU are held in conditions very close to those of prisoners condemned to death.

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