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Human Rights Watch Condemns Indiana Control Units

In October, 1997 the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) released Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana , a report on the Maximum Control Facility at Westville and the Secured Housing Unit at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Cold Storage vigorously condemns the extreme isolation regimen as a penologically unjustifiable danger to prisoners and the outside community. It is based on two visits to each facility over a three-year period, from 1995-97.
Indiana's MCF and SHU are the definition of a control unit. Prisoners: spend 22-23 hours a day in their cells; take "recreation" in another cell, often alone; serve indefinite sentences without clear criteria for release; and have minimal or no access to educational
programs, criminally inadequate physical and psychological care, and little or no natural light and fresh air.

HRW found Indiana's control units to be in violation of international law. The report's authors write starkly: "the Indiana DOC has violated the prohibition on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment contained in the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners," two agreements the US has signed and sworn to abide by.
The strongest words in the report are employed to denounce the use
of the MCF and SHU to warehouse the mentally ill. Mentally ill prisoners are sent to the control units for disciplinary infractions they commit due to their illnesses: once inside, their psychological state plunges and they often become self-mutilators. This should be obvious to the DOC. Cold Storage states: prisoners' illnesses "are not manifested in subtle symptoms apparent only to the discerning professional: prisoners rub feces on themselves, stick pencils in their penises, stuff their eyelids with toilet paper, bite chunks of flesh from their bodies, slash themselves, hallucinate, rant and rave or stare fixedly at the walls." Ill prisoners are taunted and tormented by staff, and diligently ignored by cynical health care providers prone to dismiss self-mutilators as simply "manipulative" (as the report's authors aptly note, there's no other way to get something in such conditions than to be manipulative--but that doesn't preclude the presence of a serious mental illness).

The report's recommendations to the Indiana DOC and legislature
include: prohibition of extreme isolation for seriously mentally ill prisoners, and the allocation of funds for treating them; improvement of health care and the monitoring of prisoners' mental and physical conditions; discontinuation of indefinite administrative segregation and implementation of set sentences that are not excessively long; renovation of the physical structures of the MCF and SHU so as to reconnect them with the natural world; establishment of behavioral incentives; discontinuation of measures that shatter contact between prisoners and their families; discontinuation of the practice of releasing prisoners directly from the control units to the street; working vigorously against guard racism; and increasing the monitoring of guards and staff. The legislature should create an independent ombudsman with genuine authority to monitor conditions at the MCF and SHU and create an independent review committee of mental health professionals not employed by the DOC.

The report is thoroughly annotated with relevant material. It also
contains a history of both units, and a modest appraisal of control unit
proliferation nation-wide. Cold Storage adds to the pressure the Indiana legislature is already feeling to do something about the international embarrassment of the MCF and SHU. The legislature is making motions of looking into conditons in the control units, due to pressure of the Northwest Indiana Coalition to Abolish Control Unit Prisons, a group of faith-based and social justice activists, and some Indiana media.

Copies of Cold Storage are available from Human Rights Watch for $10.00 plus $3.50 S & H. Write: Human Rights Watch, Publications Department, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104.

Descent Into Madness: An Inmate's Experience in the New Mexico State Prison Riot

by Mike Rolland, 1997

If the 1971 rebellion at Attica typified the internal cohesion, strength, and political awareness of the U.S. prison movement in the late 60s and early 70s, the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico State (PNM) in Sante Fe epitomized the choked, unfocused rage a half decade offensive by authoritarian prison management engendered. At least thirty-three prisoners were killed by other prisoners in the 36-hour riot. Mike Rolland seems to have encountered nearly all of them.

Descent Into Madness is Rolland's first-person account of the riot. A convict of the classic type, throughout the tale Rolland is primarily concerned with the preservation of himself and the small group of whites and Latinos he runs with. But the group is also one of the few attempting some kind of leadership in the violent chaos. Together they protect and release wounded guards, are stalked by, then stalk, a serial killer, and attempt to negotiate a settlement and surrender with state authorities. The book is macabre and disturbing, and a very fast read.

Mark Colvin, a professor of sociology at George Mason University in
Fairfax, Virginia, and one of the official investigators into the causes
of the riot, contextualizes the violence that Rolland witnessed and partook in his introduction to Descent . The PNM administration ran the prison on a system in which prisoner informants were encouraged. Many prisoners who refused to reveal information about fellow prisoners were slapped with snitch jackets by guards. The result was a near total distrust and paranoia among prisoners. "Inmate solidarity had indeed
been eliminated by 1980," Colvin states. The product of this prisoner control strategy, seen through Rolland's eyes, are gruesome and horrific.

The continued significance of the PNM riot, as Rolland -- now confined in Oklahoma -- concludes, is that "The hate that permeated this prison was not unique.... The spark to light the madness is ahead for all these

To order a copy of Descent Into Madness , send $23.95 plus $4.00 S&H to: Anderson Publishing Co., 2035 Reading Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45202, or call
1 800 582-7295.

Prisons and AIDS: A Public Health Challenge

by Ronald Braithwaite, Theodore Hammett and Robert Mayberry

Prisons and AIDS is a well-informed, highly statistical overview of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in prisons and jails. The book focuses on education programs and the means to implement prevention of HIV infection in prisons and jails, and shows awareness to prisoners' gender, sexual preferences, age and culture. The authors understand prisons are integral institutions in many poor communities and communities of color, and argue that to really be affective AIDS prevention efforts must be continued after prisoners are released.

The central impediment to HIV/AIDS prevention in prison is that condoms and clean needles are almost universally forbidden: regardless of how aware a prisoner is of HIV/AIDS, they don't have legal access to the means of prevention. The authors come out strongly in favor of condom and needle distribution (or at least the means to properly clean needles), as well as for culturally sensitive educational programs targeted at particular at risk groups. They also recommend that these programs be run by peers and/or HIV-positive teachers.

Prisons and AIDS also provides an examination of guards' and prison officials' attitudes towards HIV-positive prisoners and AIDS prevention, and the key role they play in a given program's effectiveness. A survey of the case law on HIV/AIDS in prison, and one on HIV/AIDS in prison globally, are also useful.

To order Prisons and AIDS send $32.95 plus $5.50 shipping and handling to: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104, or call (415) 433-1740.

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