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Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona’s Prisons and Jails

Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona's Prisons and Jails

Review by David M. Reutter

"There have been a couple of times that I've tried to end my life in here, but they keep reviving me and bringing me back. When I asked why, I was told, 'You're not going to die on us; we're not through punishing you.'"

That quote is part of the prisoner testimony in a report published by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Arizona. The report is a critical evaluation of solitary confinement in Arizona prisons and jails.
The key findings are that prisoners in supermax units have higher rates of mental illness, those units damage prisoner's mental health, they do not reduce prison violence, and the units increase recidivism.

This report is a compelling presentation that is of interest to anyone in the nation with an interest in supermax confinement conditions and its effects. The uniqueness of this comprehensive report is that it is a compilation of governmental statistics and mainstream media investigative reports into the supermax phenomena. While the report focuses on the conditions of solitary confinement in Arizona, the material could be used to dissect any prison system's solitary confinement unit.

In fact, that is the long term goal of AFSC. The report is part of AFSC's Stopmax national campaign and launches the stopmax Arizona campaign. It focuses on solitary confinement in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC), the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections (ADJC), and the Maricopa county Fourth Avenue Jail.

The first supermax unit was established in 1972 at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. By 1985, there were about half a dozen such units. By 1997, 45 states, the federal Bureau of Prisons, and the District of Columbia were operating control units that house prisoners in a cell about the size of a bathroom for at least 23 hours a day. In 2002, over 20,000 prisoners, almost 2 percent of the U.S. prison population was being held in long term solitary confinement.

The report finds the investigation of supermax prisons is needed because of its effect on community life. "Most people are aware of research documenting the arrested developments of infants in orphanages in which they are rarely held or cuddled. Studies have likewise documented how adults in sensory deprivation environments such as prisoners of war or scientists living in extremely remote areas begin to develop a discrete set of emotional and psychological symptoms," the report states.

The use of supermax prisoners in America has been condemned by the international community. "In May 2000, the U.N. Committee against torture called the 'excessively harsh regime' of supermax prisons a violation of the Convention Against Torture and made it clear that the practice is widespread in the US," says the report. The isolation of supermax makes the use of torture tools such as physical restraints, chemical agents, stun guns, and other forms of cruelty easily hidden.

One thing prison officials would like to keep hidden is the high rate of mentally ill in solitary confinement. According to ADOC statistics, 16.8 percent of the prisoner population is mentally ill. Yet, 26 percent of prisoner in ADOC supermax prisons are mentally ill. Between 25 to 35 percent of ADJC prisoners are mentally ill, with up to 50 percent of juveniles under its care taking psychotropic medications. Because the mentally ill cannot fully comprehend the expectations of complex prison rules or the consequences, they land in trouble with guards. Placement is isolation then creates and compounds mental health issues.

The report details the higher rates of suicide among prisoners in supermax and details stories of prisoners that have had their mental condition deteriorate after years of isolation In ADOC, there are 1,728 supermax cells in two units. All death row prisoners are so housed, regardless of their prison record. Most surprisingly, prisoners that require protection are also held on supermax. Prisoners classified as members of a Security Threat Group (STG) are also so housed. They, especially, are in a catch-22. To get off supermax, they must disavow STG affiliation and "snitch" on the gang, which generally puts them in the position of requiring protection. More difficult is the situation of prisoners who are wrongly classified, are not gang members and have no one to snitch on.

Most disturbing to the report's authors is the use of supermax for juveniles. Scientific research shows that the brain does not cease to mature until the early 20s, with the portion that governs emotions maturing last. Isolation has a profound effect on juvenile suicides.
Nationwide, there were 110 juvenile correctional suicides between 1995 and 1999. A full 50 percent were in isolation at the time of death and 62 percent had a history of isolation. Despite a 1987 class action lawsuit that barred juvenile isolation beyond 24 hours, for years after the court ended oversight in 1998, the US Department of Justice began to investigate ADJC, finding its extended isolation of youths "fly in the face of generally accepted professional standards."

Finally, the report turns to a totally new development in detention facilities. The isolation of unconvicted persons. In ADOC and ADJC, supermax conditions are used as punishment for violations of prison policies. In the Maricopa County Fourth Avenue jail, pretrial detainees are placed in isolation based upon a scoring system. The system is based not only on current behavior, but past behavior in the jail or such as gang affiliation. It also factors in the pending charges even though no finding of guilt has been made in court. Thus, in Maricopa County, isolation is imposed based upon the threat a person might pose.

Space limitations prohibit giving this report full treatment. It is the most comprehensive compilation of statistics, research, investigative reports, and prisoner testimonies this writer has over read on the subject of solitary confinement. Having experienced two such stints myself, I can say it speaks the truth. It is an interesting must read for prisoners and prisoner advocates, which will open your eyes to this issue and leave you unsettled. The report is available on PLN's website.

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