The Atlantic, an American literary and cultural commentary magazine, recently published the first of a three part series titled, “An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax” , a nightmare exposé on the abominable conditions inside some of the most highly guarded prisons in the United States, but, more specifically, on mentally ill inmates, and the behavior they display while being subjected to physical and psychological punishment, even when the law dictates that inmates with severe mental disorders should receive proper treatment.
For the sake of clarity, a “Supermax” is a relatively modern form of incarceration that is composed of units within a prison designed to house the allegedly worst criminals of the prison population. Inmates housed at a Supermax in the United States spend, for the most part, 23 hours a day inside a cell with little to no contact with the outside world, and are allowed only 1 hour of exercise, usually inside an external cage, separated from other inmates.
If this already seems like brutally harsh treatment for a man who is, in some manner or another, in control of his mental faculties, it must be, quite literally, unimaginable for us to comprehend just what sort of an infernal ordeal the man who has almost completely lost his mind is experiencing while confined inside four walls for years on end. To this is added the completely unacceptable fact that most of the inmates who display mental derangement of all kinds are denied psychiatric medication, and are then wholly reprimanded when they become unstable at best, and psychotic at worst.
Horror stories abound, and become increasingly unbearable as one begins to scratch the surface. They begin in a somewhat of a mild tone—inmates who lightly cut themselves in the arms and the legs—and swiftly reach utterly horrific depths:
Paragraph 5 of the complaint filed by lawyers of the inmates alleges in more detail that:
Prisoners interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils, and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to the reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them.
And it does not end there. The staff and security personnel at these Supermax prisons systematically abuse and torment these inmates who are frequently in the throes of madness. Furthermore, they also cleverly design these punishments in order for them to appear as “appropriate” to outside observers, yet which are, in fact, the very definition of “cruel and unusual punishments”:
ADX prisoners, including those in four point restraints, sometimes are put on a disciplinary “sack lunch” nutrition program in which they are fed not standard prison trays but a paper bag containing a sandwich or two and a piece of fruit. Many mentally ill prisoners at ADX who are placed on sack lunch restriction have received sacks (suitably videotaped) being delivered to their cells. But when they open the bags (off camera) they sometimes are empty. Through this ruse ADX staff produce false video evidence of feeding, raising (if only for a minute) the prisoner’s hope for basic nutrition, then smash the often-chained and always hungry prisoner’s hopes with a bag of air.
The one glimmer of hope for these mentally ill patients is the lawyers who have filed a lawsuit to ensure that they receive adequate medication and psychological counseling. These wretched souls do not even dare to ask for prison officials to be punished, nor do they seek monetary compensation, as some of them are lucid enough, at times, to understand that they are fighting a system that had them on the ground with a boot on their neck to begin with. As the author so depressingly illustrates in one paragraph:
Perhaps you are wondering if the prison has an inside “watchdog” official who might be authorized to investigate allegations of misconduct by prison staffers. There is indeed such a person at Supermax [Ed note: The Supermax being described in this article is ADX Florence], the complaint alleges. Her name is Dianna Krist. Her title is “Special Investigative Agent.” But Krist appears to be married to Captain Russell Krist, who is responsible for “all corrections functions” at Supermax. No court in the country would countenance such an obvious conflict of interest—and federal policy prohibits it.
It is then, of course, the duty of people who no longer wish to remain blissfully unaware of these abuses to speak for those who certainly cannot speak for themselves. Citizens should, by and large, remain aware that civilization is not only measured by how a country treats women, and animals, but also people who have been condemned of a crime. To remain largely indifferent of the infernal conditions in which these inmates are forced to live in certainly does not entitle one to point a finger at the brutal regimes of the world, and demand that these be held accountable.
As Michel Foucault so eloquently put it, “Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions.”
To those who argue that the inmates at a Supermax do not deserve humane treatment because surely all are violent or dangerously insane, consider, for example, the case of Steven Jay Russell, a con artist and impostor who also spends 23 hours a day inside a cell in a Supermax, yet has never, not once, committed a violent crime.
By: Andrés Ordorica
Image: Mary Yacoob (2012), “Design of the Panopticon: Order”