Solitary Confinement, an Experiment Gone Wrong

According to a speech made by Professor Craig Haney at the California Assembly Public Safety Committee hearings on August 23, 2011, the California Department of Corrections is out of control in their management of special housing units inside their prison system. Taking notice of what the renowned professor has outlined for all public officials to see and understand are the severe mental limitations that have been imposed on those incarcerated and housed inside such units. In short, Professor Haney states that “prisoners in these units complain of chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression. Rates of suicide in the California lockup units are by far the highest in any prison housing units anywhere in the country. Many SHU inmates become deeply and unshakably paranoid, and are profoundly anxious around and afraid of people (on those rare occasions when they are allowed contact with them). Some begin to lose their grasp on their sanity and badly decompensate. Others are certain that they will never be able to live normally among people again and are consumed by this fear. Many deteriorate mentally and emotionally, and their capacity to function as remotely effective, feeling, social beings atrophies.”

Beginning my career as a correctional officer back in the mid 80’s in a place called Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was primarily assigned to a new SuperMax unit in called the North Facility that was designed to hold nothing but death row prisoners, disciplinary and protective segregation prisoners and high escape risks. My mentors, training officers and co-workers worked hard to change my mentality when working with these offenders as it was the end of the road for many with nothing else to lose. Most assigned there were serving either death sentences, life without parole sentences or long terms that would ensure they would die inside prison walls at the end. Rising through the ranks and attaining the position of deputy warden and assigned to these special units, I encountered numerous cultural setbacks that gleaned to me the obvious cultural barriers that exist within these facilities. The problems are endless and personnel conduct is a constant challenge to maintain a peaceful balance in the place. An attitude of “us versus them” dominated the place and was hard to control. I am sure this led to “deliberate indifference” in many cases and “unintentional punishments” for many who were either mentally ill or unable to cope any more under such strict living conditions.

Management’s philosophy which was piece meal at best, was based on behavioral modification models or methods not clearly outlined in any formal training or orientation blocks. They changed daily to meet the need accordingly by different individuals or administrators. These tools were provided recklessly and indiscriminately without references of impact or consequences. There were no boundaries to establish precautions, prevention or assessment tools in this solitary confinement concept. The first major mistake was to house the mentally ill mixed in with lifers, gangsters and death row prisoners. The second mistake made resulted in a conceptual void of professional mental health services provided for prisoners who were suffering from borderline mental issues to cope with this solitary non contact prison world creating a more doomed or hopelessness within the setting. This included treatment and medication needs.

This condition of confinement was based on a day to day routine that had no structural foundation in either written procedures or deliberately ignoring those written procedures. The facts were quickly determined to be a ad hoc operation that required changes and adjustments daily in order to meet the needs to maintain a safe and orderly environment.

Experimental to every extend as New Mexico had never operated a SuperMax before, they copied templates from other states including California. The trend was easy to follow for staff but difficult for the prisoners to anticipate their expectations within such a structural design to create solitary isolation and deprivation conditions to control their conduct. From day one they were treated as prawns that had no rights, no feedback on living conditions and no exposure to the outside in order to maintain a tight control over this experiment that was ongoing and flawed with structural guidance or direction.

Today these prisoners [special needs, death row and gangsters] are caught in a web of deception, mismanagement and disorder because of the failed foundation that never created a sound baseline for prison management or prisoner expectations. The fact is, these prisoners are pawns in this process that is rightfully identified as being a failed experiment of society’s efforts to reform the incorrigible and labeled “worst of the worst” in public press releases. Thus, having shared approximately 7 of my 25 years of life inside prisons and these special housing units, I can conclude that Professor Haney’s evaluation that California’s prisons, just as others I worked in Arizona and New Mexico were flawed from the beginning and that ” there is now clear and convincing evidence that this misguided attempt at managing California prison gangs simply does not work.”


Professor Craig Haney at Hearing of California Assembly Public Safety Committee, August 23, 2011


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