Journalists with the web-based project dedicated to bringing attention to the widespread use of solitary confinement, Solitary Watch, report the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is going to be expanding the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois to hold federal prisoners in supermax conditions. This means cells will be holding prisoners in conditions of solitary confinement and conflicts with plans by the Bureau to review the practice of solitary confinement in US prisons.
Jean Casella and James Ridgeway reported BOP spokesperson Chris Burke told Solitary Watch in an email, “Thomson will be a high security prison holding inmates with various security needs, including SMU and ADX type inmates.”
Burke informed Solitary Watch that, despite the fact that it had been reducing its special housing unit (SHU) population, it did not lessen the need for supermax cells. He added:
“‘Special Housing’ refers to units within our prisons where inmates are placed on a temporary basis as a result of misconduct or as a result of circumstances that warrant their separation from the general population.” The distinction suggests that Thomson will be used for long-term, sometimes indefinite segregation of the kind common in ADX and the SMUs–in other words, for the most extreme forms of isolated confinement.
The Thomson Correctional Center was bought by the federal government last year for $165 million. The sale was supported by US Senator Dick Durbin and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn on the basis that it would bring “1,100 jobs to Illinois.”
The sale was held up for three years as it was believed the prison would be used to house prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison so President Barack Obama’s administration could close the facility. That earned it the nickname “Gitmo North.” With the decision to utilize supermax cells, it may continue to be appropriate to call it that name.
The prison regime for supermaximum prison cells is based upon the practice of solitary confinement. A prisoner will spend 23 to 24 hours a day in their cell.
As described in a Human Rights Watch report from 2000:
Prisoners in these facilities typically spend their waking and sleeping hours locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors. A few times a week they are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space. Supermax prisoners have almost no access to educational or recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation and are usually handcuffed, shackled and escorted by two or three correctional officers every time they leave their cells. Assignment to supermax housing is usually for an indefinite period that may continue for years. Although supermax facilities are ostensibly designed to house incorrigibly violent or dangerous inmates, many of the inmates confined in them do not meet those criteria.
The conditions are a form of additional punishment for prisoners—on top of the time they have been sentenced to serve in jail.
There is an “absence of normal social interaction, of reasonable mental stimulus, of exposure to the natural world, of almost everything that makes life human and bearable” that is “emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive.” Those who are subjected to these conditions are likely to experience “depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember.”
Durbin held a critical Senate hearing on solitary confinement in June of last year. He also praised the Bureau of Prisons when it announced earlier this month it would be reviewing the use of solitary confinement in its prisons:
The announcement by the Bureau of Prisons that it will conduct its first-ever review of its use of solitary confinement is an important development. The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore. I am confident the Bureau of Prisons will permit a thorough and independent review and look forward to seeing the results when they are made public. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the mental state of the incarcerated and ultimately on the safety of our nation.
But Durbin was an integral part of the federal government’s purchase of the facility. Whether he did it for jobs or not, he bears some responsibility for however the facility is ultimately used—which is why Solitary Watch asked his office about this development:
When asked about the fact that Thomson would include supermax cells, Durbin spokesperson Max Gleischman responded with the following statement: ”As the first member of Congress ever to hold a hearing on solitary confinement, Senator Durbin is committed to reforming America’s segregation policies and practices. As a part of his efforts, Senator Durbin has met with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and continues to work with its director to reform BOP’s segregation policies and practices. One important step in solitary confinement reform, and prison reform generally, is to reduce high rates of overcrowding. The BOP’s acquisition of Thomson prison will greatly reduce this overcrowding crisis and Senator Durbin will work with BOP to ensure that all of its inmates are treated fairly and humanely.”
That statement from Durbin’s office does not do much to alleviate concern that prisoners might be subjected to conditions of solitary confinement.
Illinois recently closed a notorious supermax prison, the Tamms Correctional Facility. According to the ACLU, “It symbolized the ever more punitive, dehumanizing, and ineffective state of our criminal justice system where entire institutions are built to hold prisoners in extreme solitary confinement.” It had an especially devastating impact on the mentally ill prisoners it housed.
Solitary confinement is essentially torture, the kind that leaves mostly mental instead of physical scars. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has found “it can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture.” Any facility that commits to holding its prisoners in conditions that amount to solitary confinement should be condemned fiercely.