Cruel and Usual

Tamms Correctional Center is one of the toughest, most expensive and least crowded prisons in the nation. But does it accomplish anything ó- besides driving inmates insane?

Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied inmates in several supermax prisons, says even healthy psyches can be damaged by long-term solitary confinement. "I have seen people; I've examined their files; there's no apparent sign or symptom of mental disorder or disturbance before being incarcerated in these units," Haney says. "I've seen them lying on the floor babbling incoherently because they simply have not been able to stand up to long-term confinement in one of these places."

Human beings require a certain amount of interaction with other human beings, and when that interaction is taken away, the results can be traumatic. "I've interviewed guys who've smeared themselves with feces, who bang their heads against the wall, who provoke cell extractions for no apparent reason -- they hold their tray at lunchtime and won't give it back, for no reason at all," Haney says. "You ask them afterwards, "Why in the world did you do that?' Some of them don't know -- some of them will tell you, "I don't have any idea why I did it. I just couldn't control myself. I felt like I had to do it.' But others will tell you, "You know, I just don't feel like I exist in here. There's no way for me to demonstrate to myself that I exist. And I keep pushing myself to extremes. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall to feel the pain to make sure I'm still existing. Sometimes I do things just to provoke a response from the staff in order to reassure myself that I'm capable of provoking a response from another human being, because I have no other opportunity to interact.' It's almost as though these guys are fighting against what they're experiencing as a kind of psychological death."

Some inmates survive long-term isolation with no apparent damage, but these are the exception, Haney says. "Sometimes they'll tell you, "I didn't like it at first, but I figured out a way to survive it,'" he says. "You probe a little further, what you find is they've basically cut themselves off from the pain that they're experiencing by denying the emotional response, by removing themselves as much as they can from the world around them and from the needs that otherwise normal people have. They learn to discipline themselves, essentially, by becoming completely indwelling." The problems come when such inmates get out of supermax. "They come out saying they're fine," Haney says. "They're in the mainline prison system for a week or a month and they get in fights with people because they can't handle being around other human beings. They're easily irritated. Sounds that never bothered them before provoke them. They feel like people are watching them or staring at them or disrespecting them. They're just very irritable. And they're very difficult to get along with."

The courts have generally ruled that supermax prisons don't constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In a landmark 1995 ruling in California that is required reading for all Tamms staff, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson gave inmates a partial victory by ruling that Pelican Bay prison, the prototype for Tamms and other supermaxes built in the 1990s, violated the rights of mentally ill inmates. Prolonged solitary confinement for a mentally ill prisoner is "like putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe," the judge wrote. "Dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that state officials' unconstitutional policies leave in their wake. The anguish of descending into serious mental illness, the pain of physical abuse, or the torment of having serious mental needs that simply go unmet is profoundly difficult, if not impossible, to fully fathom."

But healthy inmates are a different matter, so long as they aren't physically abused. "Federal courts are not instruments for prison reform, and federal judges are not prison administrators," Henderson wrote. "Conditions ... may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience, particularly when endured for extended periods of time. They do not, however, violate exacting Eighth Amendment standards, except for the specific population subgroups identified in this opinion."

In Illinois, corrections officials say they take pains to ensure that mentally ill inmates either don't go to Tamms or are sent elsewhere if persistent, serious problems develop. Before a prisoner is sent to Tamms, a mental-health professional must review his file to determine whether the inmate has mental problems that could be exacerbated by prolonged solitary confinement. Is the inmate psychotic or has he been on psychotropic medications? Has he been confined to a prison psychiatric unit or had a history of being restrained as a result of mental problems? Does he have a history of self-mutilation? Has he tried to commit suicide in the past year or had mental problems during previous stays at Tamms? Has a court found him guilty but mentally ill? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the department's chief psychiatrist or chief of mental-health services must review the case and determine whether confinement at Tamms would worsen mental-health problems. Inmates whose conditions are likely to deteriorate at Tamms aren't supposed to go there.

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