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Unlock the Box: Documenting the Struggle to Shut Down Prison Control Units, Reel Soldier Productions / MIM ( 2008, 2:00 hours

Unlock the Box: Documenting the Struggle to Shut Down Prison Control Units, Reel Soldier Productions / MIM ( 2008, 2:00 hours

Reviewed by David Preston (

The new documentary Unlock the Box is the upshot of two public conferences: “Unlock the Box,” held in 2005, in San Francisco, and “StopMax,” held in 2008, in Philadelphia. The conferences, sponsored by the Unlock the Box Coalition and the American Friends Service Committee respectively, were organized to focus attention on the increasing trend toward use of Special Housing Units (SHUs) in the American prison system, and to put pressure on government to stop and reverse this trend. At the conferences, testimony was presented by former prisoners and their families; legal and psychological experts; and general supporters of human rights. The film presents additional historical material and testimony from current prisoners, prison officials, and others. If you can get past the low budget feel and overtly political tone of Unlock the Box, you are guaranteed to have your eyes opened about the nature of modern American prisons.

Like most bureaucratic inventions, the Special Housing Unit (aka Prison Control Unit, Segregation Unit) is a mild-sounding euphemism for something unpleasant. In this case, very unpleasant. The Special Housing Unit is actually nothing more than a recycled version of old-fashioned solitary confinement, which itself is just another name for torture. According to the Unlock the Box Coalition, today, out of a US prison population of 2 million, at least 90,000 prisoners are locked up in a SHU at any one time, confined to windowless boxes as small as six by nine feet for up to 23 hours a day, barred from all human activity or contact except for an hour of exercise (maybe) and the occasional taunt or threat from a guard. Sometimes the prisoner has control over the lights; sometimes not.
Sometimes the prisoner is left in total and constant darkness. Other times the lights are on 24/7.

Think about that for a moment: ninety thousand human beings locked up all day with no one to talk to and nothing to do, in a space about the size of a small walk-in closet.
That’s a lot of torture.

Solitary confinement for prisoners was first advocated in the early 19th century. By the Quakers, oddly enough – a religious group known for its compassion and progressive politics. Extrapolating from their own model of silent worship services, the Quakers believed that prisoners isolated from the distractions of human contact would have a better chance to reflect on their crimes and be penitent (hence the name, penitentiary).
However, when this theory was put to the test it quickly failed – prisoners subjected to forced isolation, rather than waxing meditative and remorseful, simply went insane – and there followed a return to the “congregational” system of allowing prisoners to get out of their cages and socialize with each other during the day. From the mid-1800s onward the congregational model was followed, with a few exceptions, until the late 1960s, when isolation units began making a comeback as a means for the government to exert control over an increasingly restive black underclass that had begun pushing for change both from inside and outside the system.

In trying to give historical context to the rise of the SHU, Unlock the Box takes some interesting, if distracting, detours, examining the rise of the Black Panther Party, for example, and discussing the Attica prison takeover, among other episodes. Much of the material in the film is not particularly well organized or presented; however, taken as a whole, the evidence is still convincing that the shift back to solitary confinement was no accident and has little to do with the ostensible goals of segregating the most dangerous prisoners or improving prisoner behavior. In fact, it has much more to do with perpetuating the racial and economic injustices of American society as a whole. Clearly, institutional racism in the prison system is as alive today as it was when George Jackson was killed in the San Quentin prison yard in 1971, and SHUs only magnify it, with the vast majority of SHU prisoners (90%+ according to the film’s sources) being blacks and Latinos. Forget what you’ve seen on those prime-time prison documentaries, the ones where prison officials profess to be up in arms about all the race-based prison gangs; as Unlock the Box demonstrates, prison staff do not hesitate to use these gangs as a wedge to divide prisoners from one another and keep the hatred flowing. In some cases prison guards have even staged gladiator-style fights between rival gang members in SHU units.

SHUs are also about profit. One section of the film examines the special economic relationship between prisons and the people who make money off them, from the corporations that build and outfit them, to the nearby towns that supply them, to the prison guards who work in them. While the prisons-for-profit case is not the most compelling one Unlock the Box makes against the SHU system, it does explain why that system is expanding, even as the crime rate goes down. Following the prison building boom of the 1980s and 90s, prisoners are ending up in SHUs for increasingly unjustifiable reasons, including minor behavioral problems and administrative infractions such as possessing “unauthorized” literature, forming or belonging to an unauthorized group. The SHU’s stated purpose is to isolate dangerous inmates from the general prison population, so where is the logical connection between a prisoner being caught with a political pamphlet and that prisoner doing time in an isolation unit? Again, it comes down to economics. One prisoner sums it up tersely when he says: “Once they’ve built that control unit, they’re gonna find a way to use it.”

Although most SHU stays last a few weeks or less, occasionally prisoners may be confined in these holes for months, years or even decades at a time. As the testimony from prisoners and a psychiatrist interviewed for the film point up, however, even a few weeks in an isolation unit is too long. Human physiology hasn’t changed since the days of the failed Quaker experiment, so it’s no surprise that this kind of isolation still causes permanent damage to a human being. Anxiety, depression, sleeping disorders, psychotic breaks: every symptom one might reasonably expect a victim of torture to manifest. Note: While it’s technically illegal to confine a prisoner with an existing mental illness in an SHU, this is small comfort to the thousands of prisoners who have become mentally ill as a result of being put into an SHU.

On the theme of torture again, the film draws a powerful connection between torture at home and abroad. In 2005, Army reserve specialist Charles Graner was court marshaled and convicted of maltreatment and cruelty towards Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In the late 1990s, when Graner was a guard at the maximum SCI-Greene prison in Pennsylvania – a facility where 98% of the prisoners are black and 95% of the guards are white – he was accused of using methods strikingly similar to the ones he later used at Abu Ghraib.

Clearly maximum security institutions like SCI-Greene, while doing nothing to reduce recidivism, do serve as effective training academies for sadists like Graner. One wonders: If the producers of prison reality TV want to do a piece on prisons as schools for crime, why don’t they do a series on Grander and the SHU-Abu Ghraib connection?

Listen to the prisoner testimony in Unlock the Box and you can’t help but be moved to pity for anyone (even the hardest, meanest prisoner) who is subjected to the torments of an SHU. Yet, beyond the cruelty is the sheer waste and futility. Prison control units don’t reform prisoners or make society safer; in fact, they do the opposite.

One ex-prisoner sums it more eloquently than all the reams of statistics: “Put a dog in a cage and then come by and kick the cage or poke that dog with a stick every day. What happens when the dog comes out that cage?”

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