Supreme Court Upholds Supermax Prison Review

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The Supreme Court rules that prison inmates have a constitutional right to not be put in Supermax prisons if it's not necessary. Supermax is an extremely restricted environment, with virtually no human contact. The High Court has approved Ohio's program of reviews for deciding whether a given inmate's crime is serious enough to merit such restrictive confinement.


A unanimous Supreme Court ruling today on supermax prisons. Supermax facilities feature some of the harshest treatments in the American penal system. They're like long-term solitary confinement units. A group of Ohio inmates wanted the state to institute a lengthier review process for sending people to supermax prisons. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the high court decided that Ohio's review system is just fine.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Supermaximum security or supermax prisons have grown in the last 20 years. They're intended for the worst criminals. Inmates in a supermax spend 23 hours a day in a cell. There are no windows, and there's no contact with other inmates.

Mr. EDMOND TAYLOR (Former Supermax Prisoner): Literally there was times, if it wasn't for the feeding periods, that you could literally miss one day from the next day.

SHAPIRO: Edmond Taylor spent more than a year in a New York supermax facility. He has a hard time describing the effect it can have on a person.

Mr. TAYLOR: You know, I don't like to use the word `crazy,' 'cause I don't think of myself as being crazy, but it made me--hmm--aloof.

SHAPIRO: This case did not challenge the way prisoners are treated in supermax facilities. It looked at the review process for assigning prison inmates to such a facility. The Center for Constitutional Rights filed this suit on behalf of a group of inmates in Ohio. The prisoners wanted more opportunities to challenge their transfers. CCR Vice President Jules Lobel represented them.

Mr. JULES LOBEL (Vice President, The Center for Constitutional Rights): There's a real problem nationwide with people, prisoners, being put in these kind of conditions without due process. And the critical issue for us was to understand that they had some rights, that they couldn't just be arbitrarily placed in this kind of situation.

SHAPIRO: As the case progressed through the courts, Ohio expanded its review process. By the time the high court ruled on the case today, Ohio's system had multiple levels of review. Prisoners also have the opportunity to read and challenge a formal statement describing why they were being transferred. That was all key to the court's judgment that Ohio met the inmates' due process requirements, and it makes Lobel feel as though his clients have won a victory even though the court unanimously ruled against them.

Mr. LOBEL: The Supreme Court said to put somebody in this type of confinement, you have to give them the factual basis upon which you're putting them in, and you have to give them some opportunity to respond.

SHAPIRO: The high court's decision did not provide any consolation to JoAnne Page, president of The Fortune Society in New York. Her advocacy group works with former prisoners.

Ms. JOANNE PAGE (President, The Fortune Society): More review is better than no review, but token review doesn't count for much. The question I would ask is when it's the word of the correction officer against the word of a prisoner, how many times will the word of a prisoner be given credence.

SHAPIRO: Ohio is now in the privileged position of being the only state with a prisoner transfer policy that's received the formal approval of the nation's highest court. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro could start a little consulting business if he wanted to.

Attorney General JIM PETRO (Ohio): Already I'm waiting for a phone call from a colleague across the country, and I have a hunch that we're going to be talking about what they may do to conform to what Ohio has done.

SHAPIRO: Roughly 30 states have supermax prisons, and the federal government operates two such facilities. Some of them have no review process at all. That is not acceptable under today's decision. Attorney General Petro says the decision may not require states to implement a review policy as strict as the one in Ohio...

Mr. PETRO: But I would caution those states that this is a pretty clear pronouncement on the part of the court, and they might want to come as close as they can to procedural safeguards that kind of meet the standards that we've established in our policy here in Ohio.

SHAPIRO: The Center for Constitutional Rights says it has no plans to file additional suits in states where there's no review, but inmates might use today's ruling as a basis on which to file claims of their own. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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