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Mass Torture in America: Notes from the Supermax Prisons

“Exterminate all the brutes!”
– Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

“They beat the shit out of you,” said Mike James, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.

“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”

When you meet Mike James you notice first his deep-set eyes—and the many scars on his shaved head, including a deep, horizontal gash. He got that by scraping his head on the cell door slot, which guards use to pass in food trays.

“They were messing with me,” he explained, referring to the guards who taunted him. “I couldn’t stand it no more.” He added: “I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the wall.”

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten all his life, first by family members: “I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall.” He began seeing mental-health workers at age four and taking psychiatric medication at seven. He said he was bipolar and had many other disorders. When a doctor took him off his meds when he was eighteen, he got into “selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries.” He received a twelve-year sentence for robbery. Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other prisoners and prison employees.

Mike James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terror” prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security solitary confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. And the Obama administration—somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its prisoners to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though that would be a substantive change. In the supermaxes prisoners suffer weeks, months, years or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, receive meager health services, and the isolation frequently drives them to insane behavior that includes self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative. In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 prisoners in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units”—for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail prisoners are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women also are kept in supermax conditions, though apparently no researcher has estimated how many). Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary confinement sections. Although the roughness of what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

* * *

Mike James experienced frequent cell extractions—on one day five of them. In this procedure, five hollering guards wearing helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. The others spray mace into his face, push him onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the guards carry him screaming to an observation room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.

A scene like this might have taken place at the supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described by prisoners and guards, and as vividly revealed in a leaked video from a prison in Maine, which records these events to prove prisoners are not mistreated, an extraction is the supermax’s normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner disobedience. Perhaps the prisoner had protested bad food by covering his steel door’s tiny window with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all the time not just in Maine but throughout the country. The principle applied is total control of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the prisoner has no history of violence, when he leaves his cell he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.

But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s supermax, which is typical, a prisoner spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog run outdoors. Radios and televisions are forbidden. Cell lights are on night and day. When cold food is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear it’s contaminated by the feces, urine and blood splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces by the many mentally ill or enraged prisoners. The prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush, but is provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. Mental-health care usually amounts to a five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation with a social worker once or twice a week. The prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a brief telephone call every week or two, and occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. Variations in these conditions exist: in some states, for example, TVs or radios are allowed.

When supermaxes were built across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for “the worst of the worst,” the most violent prisoners. But prisoners are put in them for possession of contraband such as marijuana, when they are accused by another prisoner of being a gang member, for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and even for protection from other prisoners. Several prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they got themselves tattooed. By many accounts, mental illness is the most common denominator; mentally ill prisoners have a hard time following prison rules. A Wisconsin study found that three-quarters of the prisoners in one solitary confinement unit were mentally ill. In Maine, over half are classified as having a serious mental illness.

* * *

In addition to solitary confinement and physical brutality, American supermaxes torture prisoners in another way that recalls the treatment of Guantánamo prisoners. It could be called legal-system torture. Through their in-house disciplinary system, or even arbitrarily, prison administrators extend the supermax stays of prisoners when they act up, as happened to Mike James. And often they will charge them with criminal offenses. In 2007, James was put on trial for 10 assault charges, including biting and kicking guards and throwing feces at them. Most were felony charges, and if convicted he could have served decades more in prison. Prisoners almost never beat such charges, but his court-appointed lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, a scrappy ex-New Yorker, succeeded with a defense rare in cases of Maine prisoners accused of crimes: he convinced a jury in Rockland, the nearby county seat, to find James “not criminally responsible” by reason of insanity.
Steinberger thought the verdict was a landmark because it called into question the state’s standard practice of keeping mentally ill prisoners in isolation and then punishing them with yet more isolation when their condition worsens. After the verdict, as the law required, the judge committed James to a state mental hospital.

But corrections officials and the state attorney general’s office saw the verdict as another kind of landmark. Never before in Maine had a prisoner been committed to a mental hospital after being tried for assaulting guards—in their view, he would be escaping his deserved punishment and this would send the wrong signal to prisoners. Officials refused to send him to the hospital, arguing he first had to serve out the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Steinberger wrote to Maine’s governor—John Baldacci, a Democrat—begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital, stating:

He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing. ... He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards.

This behavior was never in dispute, but the governor declined to intervene.

After a year of court battles, Steinberger finally succeeded in getting James into the hospital, though the judge conceded to the Department of Corrections that his time there would not count against his sentence. So James faces nine years in prison after however long it takes to bring him to a sane mental state.

* * *

Can supermax treatment legitimately be called torture? The most widely accepted legal definition of torture is in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty to which the United States is party—and therefore is U.S. law. In this definition, torture is treatment that causes “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” when it is inflicted by officials for purposes of punishment or coercion.

Severe pain and suffering as punishment are plainly the norm in supermaxes, and prison officials often use isolation to coerce prisoners into ratting on each other or confessing to crimes committed in prison. (A Maine prisoner told me about a deputy warden who threw him in the most brutal cellblock of the supermax and repeatedly interrogated him about an escape plot, which he denied having knowledge of). Even in the careful words of diplomacy, and even when only mental suffering is considered, supermax conditions, especially solitary confinement of American prisoners for extended periods, have increasingly been described by UN agencies and nongovernmental human rights organizations as cruel, inhuman, degrading, verging on torture, or outright torture.

In 2008 the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, recommended that solitary “be kept to a minimum, used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort”—conditions U.S. supermaxes violate in the course of normal operations. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has been active in opposing abuses at Guantánamo, recently began describing supermax conditions as torture. And American judges have recognized solitary confinement of the mentally ill as equivalent to torture. A key case is the 1995 federal court ruling in Madrid v. Gomez that forbade keeping mentally ill prisoners in the notorious Security Housing Unit of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. [See: PLN, Aug. 1995, p.3; Oct. 1995, p.20].

Solitary confinement is by far the worst torture in the supermax. Human minds fare poorly in isolation, which “often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before,” Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and authority on solitary confinement, wrote in a brief for the Madrid case. Grassian believes supermaxes produce a syndrome characterized by “agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.” He also notes memory lapses, “primitive aggressive fantasies,” paranoia and hallucinations.

Grassian’s is the consensus view. Peter Scharff Smith of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, who has surveyed in depth the literature concerning solitary confinement, writes, “Research on effects of solitary confinement has produced a massive body of data documenting serious adverse health effects.” The effects may start within a few days, involve as many as three-quarters of supermax prisoners, and often become permanent. Another expert on supermax confinement, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, writes that “being held in isolated confinement for longer than three months causes lasting emotional damage if not full-blown psychosis and functional disability.”

The throwing of feces, urine and blood at guards; self-injury; and suicide attempts are common. A 2009 investigation of the Tamms supermax in Illinois by the Belleville News-Democrat depicted Faygie Fields, a schizophrenic imprisoned for killing a man in a drug deal. He regularly cut his arms and throat with glass and metal, swallowed glass, and smeared feces all over his cell. The prison’s reaction to this kind of behavior was predictable:

Prison officials charged him $5.30 for tearing up a state-owned sheet to make a noose to kill himself. ... If he hadn’t been charged with crimes in prison, Fields could have been paroled in 2004 after serving 20 years of a 40-year sentence. But Fields must serve all the extra time for throwing food, urine and committing other offenses against guards. That amounts to 34 years, or 54 years total, that he must serve before becoming eligible for parole in 2038, at age 79.

This American system of administrative punishment—except in extremely rare cases, prison staff, not judges, decide who goes into the hole—has no counterpart in scale or severity. There are solitary confinement cells in other countries’ prisons and the odd, small supermax, such as the Vught prison in the Netherlands, but they are few. When Corey Weinstein, a San Francisco physician, toured prisons in the United Kingdom in 2004 on behalf of the American Public Health Association, he was shown “eight of the forty men out of 75,000 [in England and Wales] considered too dangerous or disruptive to be in any other facility.” Seven of the eight “were out of their cells at exercise or at a computer or with a counselor or teacher. ... With embarrassment the host took us to the one cell holding the single individual who had to be continuously locked down.”

The British and other Europeans did use solitary confinement starting in the mid-nineteenth century, taking as models the American penitentiaries that had invented mass isolation in the 1820s. But Europe largely gave it up later in the century because, rather than becoming penitent, prisoners went insane. A shocked Charles Dickens, after visiting a Pennsylvania prison in 1842, called solitary confinement “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” Americans gave it up, too, in the late 1800s, only to resurrect it a century later.

* * *

Officially called the Special Management Unit or SMU, Maine’s supermax opened in 1992, hidden in the woods of the pretty coastal village of Warren. Ten years later the new maximum-security Maine State Prison was built around it. Literally and metaphorically, the supermax’s 132 cells are the core of the stark 925-prisoner complex with its radiating “pods.” Maine’s crime and incarceration rates are among the lowest in the country, but its supermax is as brutal as any. After allegations of beatings by guards and deliberately withheld medical care, the state police started investigations into two prisoner deaths in the SMU. Grassian has told a legislative committee that Maine’s supermax treats its prisoners worse than its peers in many states.

Still, supermaxes are more alike than different. As America’s prisoner population exploded (the U.S. incarceration rate now is nearly four times what it was in 1980, more than five times the world average, and the highest in the world), overcrowding tossed urban state prisons into turmoil. The federal prison system provided a model for dealing with the tumult: in 1983, mayhem in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois resulted in a permanent lockdown and, effectively, the first supermax. “No evidence exists that states undertook any rigorous assessment of need,” Mears, the Florida State criminologist, writes of supermax proliferation, but the states still decided that they would segregate the most troublesome prisoners. Maine’s supermax is a case in point, constructed in the absence of prisoner unrest. George Keiser, a veteran prisons official who works for the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, put it bluntly: supermaxes were “a fad.”

An expensive fad. American supermax prisons are so high-tech and the management of their prisoners so labor intensive that the facilities “typically are two to three times more costly to build and operate than other types of prisons,” Mears writes. Yet, according to Keiser, tax money poured into supermax construction because these harsh prisons were “the animal of public-policy makers.” The beast was fed by politicians capitalizing on public fears of crime incited by increasing news-media sensationalism.

There was no significant opposition to the supermaxes, even when it became clear that the mentally ill would be housed there. Legislatively-mandated deinstitutionalization meant mentally ill patients were thrown onto the streets without enough community care, and eventually many wound up in jails and prisons.

Also, “for a time,” Keiser said, “there was a thought that nothing worked” to rehabilitate prisoners. With conservative Harvard scholar James Q. Wilson leading the way in the 1970s, “corrections” was essentially abandoned.

* * *

The supermax experiment has not been a success.

Norman Kehling—small, balding, middle-aged—is serving 40 years in the Maine State Prison for an arson in which, he told me, no one was hurt. When I interviewed him, he was in the supermax for trafficking heroin within the prison. I asked him about the mentally ill men there. “One guy cut his testicle out of his sack,” he reported, shaking his head. “They shouldn’t be here.” He added: “This place breeds hate. What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.”

Wardens continue to justify supermaxes by claiming they decrease prison violence, but a study published in The Prison Journal in 2008 found “no empirical evidence to support the notion that supermax prisons are effective” in meeting that goal. And when enraged and mentally damaged prisoners rejoin the general prison population or the outside world, as the vast majority do, the result, according to psychiatrist Kupers, is “a new population of prisoners who, on account of lengthy stints in isolation units, are not well prepared to return to a social milieu.” In the worst cases, supermax alumni—frequently released from solitary confinement directly onto the street—“may be time bombs waiting to explode,” writes criminologist Hans Toch.

The bombs are already going off. In July 2007, Michael Woodbury, then 31, walked into a New Hampshire store and, in a botched robbery, shot and killed three men. He had just completed a five-year stint at the Maine State Prison for robbery and theft and had done much of his time in the supermax. When he was being taken to court he told reporters, “I reached out and told them I need medication. I reached out and told them I shouldn’t be out in society. I told numerous cops, numerous guards.” While in prison, he said, he had given a four-page “manifesto” to a prison mental-health worker saying he “was going to crack like this.” Woodbury pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. Unsurprisingly, a Washington State study showed a high degree of recidivism for prisoners released directly to the community from supermax confinement.

“Supermax prisons are expensive, ineffective, and they drive people mad,” says Sharon Shalev, of the London School of Economics, author of a recent prizewinning book, Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement.

* * *

So what can be done?

Legally, solitary confinement is not likely to be considered torture anytime soon. According to legal scholar Jules Lobel, when the Senate ratified the Convention Against Torture, it qualified its approval so much that under the U.S. interpretation, “the placement of even mentally ill prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement would not constitute torture even if the mental pain caused thereby drove the prisoner to commit suicide.” And despite the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” courts have refused to see supermax conditions per se as unconstitutional. Lawsuits on behalf of the mentally ill have had more success. In New York a suit brought about the creation of a residential mental health unit for prisoners, with another on the way, plus more out-of-cell time for the mentally ill. Still, fifteen years after Madrid v. Gomez, court-ordered reform has been infrequent and its implementation contested.

There are other roadblocks to legal action. Thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law signed by President Clinton that restricts a prisoner’s right to sue corrections officials, an individual prisoner has little ability to mount a court challenge to his placement or prison conditions. For example, before going to court, a prisoner is required to exhaust the prison grievance system—a dilatory process seemingly designed to lose or chew up prisoner complaints. And on the rare occasions when prisoners make it to court, they usually have to represent themselves. Unlike at Guantánamo, lawyers from prosperous Manhattan firms are not lining up to offer their services pro bono to penniless supermax prisoners.

The activists who see supermaxes as torture chambers are increasingly looking beyond legal action and toward pressure on legislatures and governors. They want states to abolish these facilities or at least reduce their reliance on prolonged solitary confinement, and to provide mental health care and rehabilitation for disturbed and difficult prisoners.
A persistent grassroots group in Illinois, Tamms Year Ten, has extracted promises from the state to improve conditions at Tamms. The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based think tank, has begun working with officials in Illinois—and in Maryland—to reduce the number of prisoners in isolation. Vera is trying to apply lessons from Mississippi, where a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) resulted in perhaps the most significant U.S. supermax reform, shrinking the population of the state’s infamous Parchman penitentiary supermax from one thousand to 150. Mississippi expanded its mental-health, educational and recreational programs for supermax prisoners and, as they improved their behavior, moved them to the general prison population.

In 2010 a Maine prison-reform coalition, aided by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the ACLU, lobbied the legislature to pass a bill to limit terms of solitary confinement to 45 days and prohibit people with “serious mental illness” from being put in the supermax. Although the majority Democratic leadership supported the bill, it failed. In its place the legislature launched a study of solitary confinement, and activists are hopeful a similar measure will be enacted in the future. At the bill’s legislative hearing, reformers testified that if a conservative state such as Mississippi could make sweeping reforms work, then certainly moderate Maine could.

Some reformers believe the public can be turned against supermaxes because of their high cost. Faced with ever-rising prison expenditures at a time of depressed tax revenues, officeholders are beginning to question draconian sentencing laws and to see probation and parole as more attractive. In Missouri, a sentencing commission has begun telling judges, before they sentence prisoners, about the large price tag of incarceration as compared to measures such as probation. And social scientists are increasingly producing evidence showing that investment in prisoner rehabilitation lowers recidivism and would save taxpayers money in the long run. Currently, two-thirds of ex-convicts return to prison within three years.

Supermaxes, however, grew through several recessions. In the current economic slump, the Colorado state budget has been under great strain but the state opened a 300-bed supermax. While prisoner outcomes make clear that the high-priced supermaxes are counterproductive, it appears unlikely that much will be done immediately about this archipelago of agony. Prison guards in some states have strong unions, which will fight supermax closures that would put their members out of work. Prison bureaucracies are big and self-protective. Supermaxes are the products of relatively recent investment, and it would be difficult for legislators to do an about-face so soon.

In any case, supermax torture wasn’t instituted based on a utilitarian calculation about dollars and cents. “The object of torture is torture,” George Orwell wrote. As long ago as 1975, years before the first supermax, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills wrote about prisons that Americans had become complicit in “the psychic incineration of our fellow citizens.” His evaluation today would be even more devastating.

This article was originally published in the Boston Review (, and is reprinted with permission of the author. Much of it is drawn from stories published over five years in the Portland Phoenix. A longer version with academic notes appears in the anthology “The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse,” published by New York University Press

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