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Infamous Punishment The Psychological Consequences of Isolation, NPPJ,1993

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"Infamous Punishment":
The Psychological Consequences
of Isolation
The NPP JOURNAL continues its in­
depth coverage of supermaximum secu­
rity prisons. In the Fall 1992 issue, we
ran an overview article, "The Marioni­
zation of American Prisons," and a
piece on Barlinnie, the Scottish equiva­
lent of our supermax. It operates in a
very different manner from its U.S.
counterparts with very different results.
A third article on California's Pelican
Bay State Prison, the most restrictive
prison in the country, focused on its
severe and restrictive confinement. In
the following article, University of
California psychologist Craig Haney
examines the psychological effects of
confinement in prisons like Pelican Bay.

austere. Indeed, Pelican Bay's low, win­
dowless, slate-gray exterior gives no hint
to outsiders that this is a place where
human beings live. But the barrenness of
the prison's interior is what is most star­
tling. On each visit to this prison I have
been struck by the harsh, visual sameness
and monotony of the physical design and
the layout of these units. Architects and
corrections officials have created living

prison grounds, which are covered instead
by gray gravel stones. This is no small
accomplishment since the prison sits adja­
cent to the Redwood National Forest and
the surrounding landscape is lush enough
to support some of the oldest living things
on earth. Yet here is where the California
Department of Corrections has chosen to
create the most lifeless environment in
its-or any-correctional system.
When prisoners do get out of their cells
for "yard," they are released into a barren
concrete encasement that contains no
exercise equipment, not even a ball. They
cannot see any of the surrounding land­
scape because of the solid concrete walls
that extend up some 20 feet around them.



ince the discovery of the asylum, pris­
ons have been used to isolate inmates
from the outside world, and often
from each other. As most students of the
American penitentiary know, the first real
prisons in the United States were charac­
terized by the regimen of extreme isolation
that they imposed upon their prisoners.
Although both the Auburn and Penn­
sylvania models (which varied only in the
degree of isolation they imposed) eventu­
ally were abandoned, in part because of
their harmful effects upon prisoners, 1
most prison systems have retained and
employed-however sparingly-some
form of punitive solitary confinement. Yet,
because of the technological spin that they
put on institutional design and procedure,
the new super-maximum security prisons
are unique in the modern history of Amer­
ican corrections. These prisons represent
the application of sophisticated, modern
technology dedicated entirely to the task of
social control, and they isolate, regulate,
and surveil more effectively than anything
that has preceded them.
The Pelican Bay SHU
The Security Housing Unit at California's
Pelican Bay State Prison is the prototype
for this marriage of technology and total
control. 2 The design of the Security
Housing Unit-where well over a thou­
sand prisoners are confined for periods of
six months to several years-is starkly

Bare concrete walls form an exercise "yard" at Pelican Bay where prisoners
engage in solitary recreation. An opaque roof covers half the yard; the wire
screen which covers the other half provides prisoners with their only view of
open sky.

environments that are devoid of social
stimulation. The atmosphere is antiseptic
and sterile; you search in vain for human­
izing touches or physical traces that
human activity takes place here. The
"pods" where prisoners live are virtually
identical; there is little inside to mark
location or give prisoners a sense of place.
Prisoners who are housed inside these
units are completely isolated from the nat­
ural environment and from most of the ·
natural rhythms of life. SHU prisoners,
whose housing units haye no windows, get
only a glimpse of natural light. One prison­
er captured the feeling created here when
he told me, "When I first got here I felt
like I was underground." Prisoners at
Pelican Bay are not even permitted to see
grass, trees or shrubbery. Indeed, little or
none exists within the perimeters of the

Overhead, an opaque roof covers half the
yard; the other half, although covered with
a wire screen, provides prisoners with
their only view of the open sky. When out­
side conditions are not intolerably
inclement (the weather at Pelican Bay
often brings harsh cold and driving rain),
prisoners may exercise in this concrete
cage for approximately an hour-and-a-half
a day. Their movements are monitored by
video camera, watched by control officers
on overhead television screens. In the con­
trol booth, the televised images of several
inmates, each in separate exercise cages,
show them walking around and around the
perimeter of their concrete yards, like lab­
oratory animals engaged in mindless and
repetitive activity.
Prisoners in these units endure an
unprecedented degree of involuntary,