“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” Supreme Court Judge Samuel Freeman Miller, writing about solitary confinement, in Medley Petitioner 134 U.S. 1690 (1890)
In his Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette commentary of April 1, George Welborn, the first warden at Tamms Supermax Prison, argues that Governor Quinn’s decision to close the prison was driven by politics. More precisely, he claims that the governor is trying to please “his Chicago constituency groups” and cites a number of groups defending civil and human rights that have offices in Chicago.
I cannot say how the governor weighed economic and human rights concerns. But I can say that there are serious human rights violations going on when prisoners are held in 24-hour isolation, some since the prison was opened fourteen years ago. The prisoners do not even see those who bring their meals, which are shoved through holes in the steel doors of their 7X12-foot cells.
When such supermax institutions were created in the 1980s and 1990s, the claim was made that only the “worst of the worst” who threatened or committed physical harm to guards and other prisoners would be put into them. Research has shown that in some cases just irritating a guard can get one a transfer to a supermax institution.
The most important consideration is the psychological damage done to people who are placed in these conditions, some of whom already have undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who specializes in the effects of solitary confinement, found serious mental illness among prisoners in Mississippi’s Unit 32 in Parchman. These manifested themselves in hallucination, throwing of feces, and howling at night. There have been instances of suicide, attempted suicide, and self-castration. Christopher Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections and president-elect of the American Correctional Association, at first was a strong supporter of such confinement. “That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he says. But based upon many years of experience with it in Mississippi, he now strongly opposes it: “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave.” (New York Times, March 10, 2012). And some of these people will someday be released out into the public, made all the more dangerous by their confinement.
No other Western nation uses such isolation for such long periods and it has deservedly cost us internationally. Last month the U.N. special investigative rapporteur on torture and cruel and unusual punishment pressed the U.N’s Human Rights Council to take up the issue of round-the-clock isolation from all human contact as a cruel and inhumane form of torture. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights prevented four terrorism suspects from being deported from Britain to the U.S. because of the conditions in the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where the accused terrorists might have ended up.
So, Mr. Welborn, while it must be difficult for you to accept the fact that the institution that you headed was engaged in inhumane activity, it is not the case that only human rights organizations in Chicago think that this is so. Some of us downstate agree, the president-elect of the American Correctional Association who had previously been a strong proponent now thinks so, psychiatrists and psychologists think so, and people in the international community think so.
Justice Miller had it right way back in 1890. It is you sir, not the governor, who has tried to make this into a politically partisan issue.
(This article was previously published as a commentary in the News-Gazette and in Springfield’s State Journal-Register.)