By Bill Nichols, Prisonersolidarity.org
Jan. 27, 2006
When our political leaders debate the ethics
and efficacy of torture,
we need to consider how our country arrived at this chilling moment
in our history. We've debated the death penalty for years, but despite
wars and Red scares and spells of xenophobia, we have never before
discussed as a nation the use of torture. Even those who favor the
death penalty often oppose deliberately inflicted pain, arguing
for lethal injection instead of the electric chair, gallows, gas
chamber, and firing squad.
If our president were willing to talk frankly about it, he would
probably say our nation is confronted by extraordinary evil, and
if we had been willing to inflict severe physical and mental pain
on suspected terrorists, we might have learned about the horrors
planned for us on September 11, 2001. As a result, he might say,
his administration found it necessary to define cruelty down, to
say it is torture only when it causes pain equivalent to experiencing
death or organ failure.
Judging from what has happened in Ohio's prison system, I think
our society began several years ago, half-consciously, to accept
torture as just. This possibility first occurred to me in late April
of 2000, about two years after the completion of the Ohio State
Penitentiary, our "Supermax," built in response to a riot
in the spring of 1993 at the southern Ohio Correctional Facility,
a maximum-security prison in Lucasville. The Supermax in Youngstown,
like many other high maximum security prisons around the country,
was designed to be an emphatically punitive environment: prisoners
spend a minimum of 23 hours a day alone in small cells, and they
can leave their cells for exercise or a shower only in shackles
after a humiliating body search. Such an arrangement pretty well
rules out riots and promotes suicides.
In April of 2000 a friend and I were having breakfast at a restaurant
in eastern Ohio and talking about the recent suicide of Richard
Pitts, a prisoner in Ohio's Supermax, when a middle-aged truck driver
asked if he could join us. He had overheard our conversation, he
said, and he wanted to tell us something. He brought his coffee
to our table, sat down, and before he could speak, quietly began
to cry. He told us his son, a corrections officer at the Supermax,
had been at the prison when Richard Pitts hanged himself in his
cell. His son spoke of Pitts' suicide, he said, as "good riddance
to bad rubbish." Coming out of the Army, his son had taken
a job at the Supermax, thinking he could accomplish something worthwhile.
He had become a local expert on the influence of gangs in prison
and was sometimes asked to give talks around Ohio on that subject.
But after a year on the job he began to believe the phrase "the
worst of the worst" that prison administrators and politicians
use to describe Supermax inmates. He no longer considered them fully
human, his father said, and his bitterness had begun to affect his
treatment of his wife and children. The truck driver believed his
family was being torn apart by his son's work in Ohio's new prison.
It is important to acknowledge that there are dangerous, violent
men in Ohio's prison system. I correspond with a young man whose
attorney has spoken to me of his heinous crime. When he was transferred
back to the Lucasville maximum-security prison after more than three
years in isolation, this young man attacked another inmate and was
quickly returned to the Supermax. There are surely prisoners who
must be put in isolation to protect others. But we have known for
a long time that isolation is a form of torture, not rehabilitation.
Early Philadelphia Friends believed solitude could have healing
power in prison. They thought time alone with a Bible and no diversions
would allow criminals to understand themselves and the implications
of what they had done. By the early nineteenth century, however,
it was clear that isolation could be psychologically destructive.
After Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville came from France
to study our prison system, they described what happened in New
York's Auburn prison in their book The Penitentiary System in the
United States (1833):
The northern wing having been nearly finished in 1821, eighty
prisoners were placed there, and a separate cell was given to each.
This trial, from which so happy a result had been anticipated, was
fatal to the greater part of the convicts: in order to reform them,
they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute
solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man;
it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity;
it does not reform, it kills.
By the end of the nineteenth century,
the U.S. Supreme Court had acknowledged the terrible effects of
isolation. In Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising
Staughton Lynd quotes an 1890 decision, In re Medley, describing
the effects of extended isolation on prisoners:
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, even after 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
Contemporary psychologists report
that sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, confusion, and
psychotic behavior. They say isolation is especially destructive
when people experience it as an arbitrary form of punishment with
no fixed end.
When the chance to attend classes is withdrawn from the prisons,
as it has been to a great extent in recent years, inmates often
create opportunities to gather and talk anyway. This impulse toward
community organization can lead to gangs, and it is one reason why
supermaxes have been built in most of our states. But I have met
with two inmate-initiated groups that seemed less like gangs than
like good college seminars. In the winter of 1994 I met several
members of the National Lifers Association at the Gus Harrison Facility
in Adrian, Michigan. What most struck me about the Michigan prisoners
was their civility. We had only an hour together, and several men
seemed to want to tell about their prison experience. They deferred
to each other, giving the quietest among them opportunities to talk.
They talked about their loss of privileges in recent years such
as the chance to make art and music that would have been part of
rehabilitation in a different era.
Four years after my visit to the Gus Harrison Facility, I met a
class of long-term prisoners at Green Haven prison in Stormville,
New York. On that visit, I accompanied several Vassar College students
who were scheduled to teach the group of twenty inmates, a class
normally taught by the inmates themselves. Midway through a two-hour
session, one of the students lectured the class on environmental
justice, pointing out that toxic waste dumps and polluting industries
cluster around minority communities. Make a map, she said, of the
most dangerously polluted parts of our country and another map of
our poorest minority neighborhoods, urban and rural. Now superimpose
the maps, and you will find they are almost the same. This was not
news to the prisoners, all African-Americans except for one Hispanic.
They said they had noticed sewage treatment plants, toxic waste
incinerators, and chemical plants in their own neighborhoods. They
spoke of the importance of community organizing to resist such injustice,
the development of what one prisoner called "community-specific
programs." They talked about ways of holding local politicians
The student insisted on another view. The key, she said, is the
power of the consumer. Careful, knowledgeable buying, she argued,
can bring environmental justice. The young woman's insistence that
careful consumerism is the answer for prisoners whose families and
neighbors are poor seemed to flow from the innocence of great privilege.
But the men spoke gently, without sarcasm, as they disagreed with
her. Having studied together for years, they seemed comfortable
with each other and confident of their ability to disagree without
causing bad feelings.
By 1998, when I visited Green Haven, federal and state funding for
education in prisons had dried up. But it would have been hard for
anyone to sit through that long class meeting without seeing that
such practice in civility and the lively exchange of ideas is beneficial
for men who might someday return to their communities. Still, isolation
was already the growing trend in criminal justice around the country,
and Ohio's Supermax had just opened.
For several years Alice and Staughton Lynd have worked in Ohio to
end the injustice that is inevitable when a state builds an institution
designed to induce psychological disintegration. They helped to
develop a class action complaint filed on behalf of 29 inmates at
Ohio's Supermax by attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights
and the American Civil Liberties Union. In February of 2002 Federal
Judge James S. Gwin ruled that Supermax inmates "face an atypical
and significant hardship," adding that almost 200 men were
transferred to the Supermax from 1998 to early 1999 without an "adequate
hearing." The judge said the State of Ohio had violated the
"due process of law" clause in both the 5th and 14th Amendments
to the U.S. Constitution.
Although Judge Gwin did not put it this way, it seems to me true
to say prisoners in Ohio's Supermax have been subject to illegal
mental cruelty, to torture. I've corresponded with one of the prisoners,
a young man I'll call Lawrence, who Judge Gwin discusses to illustrate
the injustice. In April of 1993, at the age of 22, Lawrence began
serving a sentence of three to fifteen years for armed robbery,
a first offense, at Ohio's Orient Correctional Institution. In 1998
he was charged with assaulting a corrections officer while intoxicated.
A discipline committee at the Orient prison placed him in isolation
but recommended that his classification level remain the same and
that he not be transferred to the Supermax. The Orient warden agreed.
A criminal indictment against Lawrence, based on his alleged assault,
was dismissed by the local prosecutor's office. Despite the recommendations
and the lack of an indictment, Chief Bernard Ryznar of Ohio's Bureau
of Classification raised Lawrence's security classification three
levels from medium to high maximum security, an extraordinary ruling,
and moved him to the Supermax in October of 1998.
Judge Gwin writes that after one year of good behavior Lawrence
was given an additional year at the Supermax by a reclassification
committee at the prison. After more than two years the committee
recommended that he be removed from the Supermax with his classification
reduced, but they were overruled by Ohio prison administrators.
Despite guidelines that recommend parole after 48 to 60 months for
a first-time offender convicted of armed robbery, Lawrence could
not be paroled after he had served over 90 months because he was
classified as high maximum security. So ends the judge's account,
but within a few months of his ruling, Lawrence was transferred
and then paroled.
Reading Judge Gwin's summary of Lawrence's case, one can't help
wondering why a state official would ignore a unanimous recommendation
and put a first offender in a facility supposedly designed for the
"worst of the worst." The judge doesn't answer that question
directly in his ruling, but he does say this: "The opening
of the OSP has created too much capacity for the highest level of
security. . . . After the huge investment in the OSP, Ohio risks
having a 'because we have built it, they will come' mind set."
Judge Gwin suggests the state may be financially tied to a kind
of imprisonment known to inflict mental pain, but Ohio's continuing,
unsuccessful effort to fill the 504 cells at the Supermax, while
taking account of the judge's insistence on due process, has produced
a great fiscal irony: we are moving our death row prisoners from
the Mansfield Correctional Institution, where the annual cost per
inmate is $22,063.14, to the Supermax, where they will be tortured
for the rest of their lives at an annual cost per inmate of $58,353.80.
Torture of the kind I believe we have come to accept in Ohio has
not been publicized in the way more spectacular cruelty at Abu Ghraib
and Guantanamo Bay and various sites in Afghanistan has been reported.
To my knowledge, no legislative body in the United States has seriously
debated the use of torture in our prisons. The subject of torture
can be discussed with a degree of comfort only when it is kept at
a distance, as when it is attributed to other cultures, said to
put less emphasis than ours on human dignity. Even the most violent
electronic games include much killing but no torture. And deliberately
induced mental agony in our prisons has been kept in the shadows
as just one part of the dark underside of a criminal justice system
from which we have withdrawn the resources needed for rehabilitation.
Few of us want to think about the possibility that we're implicated
in deliberately inflicting pain. This understandable distaste has
been apparent in our public discourse on capital punishment. When
the State of Ohio resumed executions in 1999 after a moratorium
lasting since 1963, the first to be killed was Wilford Berry, a
diagnosed schizophrenic and convicted murderer who volunteered for
lethal injection. There was considerable public debate before and
after his death, including arguments that Berry's execution amounted
to a mercy killing and claims that killing a man known to be mentally
ill undermined the legitimacy of capital punishment. But as more
people were executed in Ohio and the state got rid of the electric
chair that had remained as a grisly alternative to lethal injection,
public attention shifted away from capital punishment. Then a man
named Lewis Williams physically resisted his execution. When Williams
was killed by lethal injection on January 14, 2004, nine guards
worked to restrain the 117-pound man. His screaming and writhing
attempts to save himself while witnesses observed the preparations
were unmistakable evidence of great mental suffering, and once more
there was considerable public debate.
We know the people who administer executions suffer psychologically,
and it would be astonishing if people who administer torture were
not harmed as well. In fact, the best way to understand what happened
to the truck driver's son in his work as a corrections officer at
Ohio's Supermax may be to consider what it means to be a deliberate
agent of another's person's suffering. I suggest an analogy. Like
most teachers, I have known how it feels to fail at least as often
as I succeed, but if I came to understand my work as a daily effort
to keep my students from learning and growing, I might seek comfort
by telling myself they deserved such treatment. Still, if I allowed
myself to know my students and their potential for good, the daily
act of driving them deliberately toward a sense of futility and
hopelessness would surely lead me into despair. My confident guess
is that the truck driver's son was not disillusioned by his contact
with "the worst of the worst."
Instead, he felt what Friends call "that of God" in the
men who were his charges. As he came to understand that he was tormenting
men, not caring for them in a way that might prepare them to live
outside the prison, he must have lost his self-respect.
These are grim matters to consider. It is difficult to imagine a
time when we will not be ashamed of talking about torture, let alone
pursuing it as state and national policy. But the conversation has
already begun at the highest levels of our government, and perhaps
it offers an opportunity to discuss something that has happened
unwittingly to us in our polarized, fearful society. As our leaders
have talked of confronting evil before it reaches our shores and
we have been reminded daily of the power of suicidal violence, perhaps
we have come to see ourselves as desperate victims in a world that
hates us. The far more hopeful lesson to be drawn from September
11, 2001, has escaped us: that we are as vulnerable as other people
despite our enormous economic and military power, and our shared
vulnerability is a basis for authentic community.
In our desperate fear we have turned to torture, seeking to know
what others' hatred holds in store for us. Our willingness to torture
may be eased by the cruelty we have accepted as policy within our
own prison system, cruelty that is surely fostering more hatred.
Perhaps if we are able to talk with each other about the moral quagmire
we have made for ourselves abroad, we will be able to look within
our own prisons. And doing that, we might come to agree that we
should never torture, whether our motive is learning about our peril
or punishing people we consider evil.
17 Samson Place
Granville, OH 43023