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Imagine living in an 8-by-12 prison cell, in solitary confinement, for eight years straight. Your entire world consists of a dank, cinder block room with a narrow window only three inches high, opening up to an outdoor cement cage, cynically dubbed, "the yard." If you're lucky, you spend one hour five days a week in that outdoor cage, where you gaze up through a wire mesh roof and hope for a glimpse of the sun. If you talk back to the guards or act out in any way, you might only venture outside one precious hour per week.
You go eight years without shaking a hand or experiencing any physical human contact. The prison guards bark orders and touch you only while wearing leather gloves, and then it's only to put you in full cuffs and shackles before escorting you to the cold showers, where they watch your every move.
You cannot make phone calls to your friends or family and must "earn" two visits per month, which inevitably take place through a Plexiglass wall. You are kept in full shackles the entire time you visit with your wife and children, and have to strain to hear their voices through speakers that record your every word. With no religious or educational programs to break up the time or elevate your thoughts, it's a daily struggle to keep your mind from unraveling.
This is how Reginald Akeem Berry describes his time in Tamms Correctional Facility, a "Supermax" state prison in southern Illinois, where he was held from March 1998 until July 2006. He now works to draw attention to conditions inside Tamms, where 261 inmates continue to be held in extreme isolation.
Once exclusively employed as a short-term punishment for particularly violent jailhouse infractions, "supermax" facilities, or "control units," are today designed specifically to hold large numbers of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. A concept that spread like wildfire in the 1990s, today an estimated 20,000 prisoners in 44 states live in these modern-day dungeons, judged to be "unmanageable" by prison officials and moved from other penitentiaries to the nearest supermax.
Life in supermax institutions is grueling. Inmates stay in their cells for at least 23 hours per day, and never so much as lay eyes on another prisoner. While many live under these conditions for five years, others continue, uncertain of how to earn their way out, for 10, 15 or even 20 years.
The effects of such extended periods of isolation on prisoners' physical and mental health, their chances of meaningful rehabilitation, and, ultimately, on the communities to which they will eventually return are coming under increasing fire, from lawyers, human rights advocates and the medical professionals who have treated them. Bolstered by growing concern over the United States' sanctioning of torture, and the effect it's had on the country's international standing, their calls to action are gaining ground. In 2000, and again in 2006, the United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the kind of isolation imposed by the U.S. government in federal, state and county-run supermax prisons, calling it "extremely harsh." "The committee is concerned about the prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to," they stated, "the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
"Sending someone to a supermax is punishment"
Defense attorney Jean Maclean Snyder, who has represented several Tamms prisoners, says the U.N. declaration is dead-on. "It is suspected that many [Tamms] prisoners have been sent there in retaliation for filing lawsuits about prison policies; because serious mental illnesses cause them to be disruptive; or simply because wardens at other prisons do not like them," she wrote in 2000, shortly after the original declaration was issued. Allan Mills of the Uptown People's Law Office in Chicago, Ill., thinks that the ambiguity surrounding how and why inmates are sent to supermax facilities constitutes a violation of due process. "Sending someone to a supermax is punishment," Mills told AlterNet, "and before someone gets punished, they have a right to a fair hearing." "Just like if you were to get a traffic ticket, you have a right to say 'I didn't do it' and bring witnesses, and the police would have to come and testify against you," he said. "The same should go for prisoners who are being subjected to this horrendous long-term confinement." Mills claims he has "tracked a pattern of prisoners being sent to Tamms because of them filing grievances or lawsuits and being jailhouse lawyers."
Jessica Pupovac is an adult educator and independent journalist living in Chicago.