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Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison

Total Confinement: Madness and Reason
in the Maximum Security Prison

by Lorna A. Rhodes, University of California Press, 2004 (329 pages, $19.95).

Reviewed by David C. Fathi

Like chain gangs and boot camps before them, "supermax" prisons were a raging fad in the 1990syet another round in the perpetual "tough on crime" political bidding war. By one count, more than thirty states were operating a "supermax" facility or unit by 1999. Some were freestanding prisons; the state of Washington, however, built a number of smaller "intensive management units" (IMUs) within larger facilities.

Lorna Rhodes, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, conducted a three-year study of Washington's IMUs as part of the University of Washington/Department of Corrections Correctional Mental Health Collaboration. She attended meetings, classes, hearings, and other prison events, and conducted extensive interviews with prisoners and staff.

Rhodes' description of these units will not be news to those who follow prison issues. Through the work of psychiatrists like Terry Kupers and Stuart Grassian, reports from human rights organizations, and accounts that have emerged from litigation, the extreme sensory deprivation and social isolation that characterize supermax confinement have become depressingly familiar. But for a more general readership, Rhodes' account of the shattering effects of supermax confinement is jarring:

"Standing next to the control booth with the two prison workers who were escorting me, at first I barely noticed the man exercising in a small indoor yard in front of the tiers. The prisoner & was facing the wall and swinging his arms out in gradually widening circles, an exercise that made sense given the lack of any exercise equipment in the little space. But gradually we became aware that he was calmly and rhythmically swinging one arm closer and closer to the wall, a bloodstain spreading as his hand hit the concrete."

But Rhodes is less interested in describing day-to-day conditions than in analyzing the ideology that underlies supermax confinement. This ideology, which Rhodes calls "punitive individualism," posits that prisoners are rational actors who decide whether to violate the criminal law or prison rules based on the expected consequences of their actions. Under this theory, the environmental causes of lawbreaking are irrelevant and rehabilitation a waste of time; the only sensible policy is to increase the certainty and severity of the sanctions for misbehavior. This ideology supports the existence of the supermax as an ever-present threat for prisoners at other facilities who violate the rules.

Rhodes also describes the near-impossible position of the prisoner trying to "earn" his way out of supermax confinement. In theory, sustained good behavior can earn more privileges, and ultimately transfer from the supermax to a less-restrictive setting. But it is unclear how a prisoner can demonstrate "good behavior" when locked in a windowless concrete box virtually 24 hours a day. Indeed, a supermax prisoner's compliant behavior is often seen less as a sign of his progress than as validation for the extremely restrictive regime under which he is confined. Finally, for prisoners who are unlucky enough to be labeled "psychopathic" or "manipulative," even the most positive behavior is interpreted as just more evidence of their devious and dangerous nature.

Rhodes' final chapter describes recent efforts to reform one of the IMUs. After a period of upheaval characterized by frequent assaults and uses of force, a new administrator took charge of the unit and instituted a number of changes. These included improving physical conditions (including a vigorous effort to remove racist graffiti), weekly "tier walks" in which top administrators meet with prisoners and attempt to address problems, and limited opportunities for prisoners to take classes together. Staff received additional training; some were asked to leave. After these changes were implemented, violence and uses of force declined, and many prisoners had "graduated" from the IMU and were living in general population. Rhodes is cautiously positive about these changes, while recognizing their limits, as well as the paradox inherent in creating a kinder, gentler supermax.

There are unmistakable signs that the bloom is off the supermax experiment. Virginia and Michigan have converted supermaxes to regular maximum-security prisons; Maryland has announced plans to demolish its supermax less than fifteen years after its construction. As states face record budget deficits, supermax facilities, which are far more expensive to build and operate than conventional prisons, seem to have lost much of their appeal. Nevertheless, thousands of prisoners remain confined in supermax facilities throughout the United States. Rhodes' book is a useful theoretical analysis of these places where, in the words of historian Michael Ignatieff, "needs are met, but souls are dishonored."

[David C. Fathi is Senior Staff Counsel at the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, DC. He has successfully represented PLN in censorship litigation against the Nevada Department of Corrections.]

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