As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax Almost every one of the estimated 25,000 U.S. inmates in isolation will be released back into the public one day. A few prison officials reconsider the idea of isolation -- and wonder if there might be a better way.

As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax

As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax

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Brian Belleque, the warden of the Oregon State Penitentiary, says that isolation alone doesn't work; inmates need an opportunity to change. Laura Sullivan, NPR hide caption

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Laura Sullivan, NPR

Q&A: Human-Rights Concerns

Jamie Fellner

Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, discusses the civil liberties concerns raised by the long-term segregation of inmates. Read the Q&A with Fellner.

Q&A: Solitary & the Law

Roger Pilon

For more than a century, legal questions have surrounded the use of long-term segregation. Roger Pilon, a legal scholar with the Cato Institute, discusses some of the issues involved. Read the Q&A with Pilon.


This is the second story in a three-part series examining the state of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons today.

Part 1 -- Wednesday, July 26: California's Pelican Bay prison is considered the model for most long-term segregation units in U.S. prisons today. NPR visits the prison's secure housing unit to discover what life is like for the more than 1,200 inmates who live there in tiny, windowless cells. (Read Part 1: 'At Pelican Bay Prison, a Life in Solitary')


Part 3 -- Friday, July 28: Daud Tulam spent 18 years in solitary confinement in New Jersey. He's now free and trying to adjust to life on the outside. (Read Part 3: 'Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary')


Series Overview -- Read: 'In U.S. Prisons, Thousands Spend Years in Isolation'

A growing number of prisoners are spending years in solitary confinement in prisons across the country. These prisoners eat, sleep and exist in their cells alone, with little, if any, physical contact with others.

Experts say there are more than 25,000 inmates serving their sentences this way. A handful of them have been in isolation for more than 20 years.

Almost every inmate in isolation will be released back into the public one day. But there are a few prison officials who are rethinking the idea of isolation -- and wondering if there might be a better way.

One of them is Don Cabana. He began his career in corrections the way most people did 30 years ago in the South: On the back of a horse, a shotgun in one hand and 100 prisoners below him, picking cotton.

The inmates were prisoners at a place called Parchman, a prison deep in the farmlands of Mississippi.

"Parchman was like any other prison: Nobody ever cared about it or cared what went on there," Cabana says. "And there's no question inmates were beaten and abused. I would go so far as to say some were probably even murdered."

Locking Down a Lawless Prison Environment

For almost a century, Parchman was notoriously violent. It was known as a place where inmates did hard time. By the time Don Cabana became warden in 1981, things had changed at Parchman. Much of the prisoner abuse had subsided, but there were new problems.

It was overcrowded, underfunded and full of bored, violent inmates -- the result of an explosion in gangs and drug crime. Assaults on staff were increasing. Instead of worrying about the guards killing the inmates, Cabana says he worried about the inmates killing his guards.

"I had three officers stabbed one morning by one inmate," he says, "and the only reason he stabbed them is because he was trying to elevate his status in the Aryan brotherhood. Damn near kills all three of them. You know, you take your staff being injured by these people very personally, because you feel like you have failed somehow. And a warden's worst nightmare is losing a staff person."

For Cabana, that was the last straw. He pulled the inmate into his office and shut the door.

"I sat there and I said, 'Well, Bubba. I tell you, you've made it to the big time,'" Cabana says, describing his conversation with the inmate. "'Are you prepared for all the benefits?' And he said, 'Well, like what?' And I said, 'I'm going to lock this place down so tight and so long that you'll never see the sunshine. And you see, I'm going to do it to a thousand inmates in here, not just you.'"

That's just what Cabana did.

He looked at states including California, Arizona and Illinois and saw they were creating a new place to put bad inmates: 1,000-bed, high-tech isolation units known as Supermax prisons. That meant 23 hours a day in a cell, one hour alone in an exercise pen. No television, no contact with the outside world, nothing but a concrete cell.

Making Meaner Inmates

Cabana says he didn't have any trouble getting money to build the Supermax prison, or getting state lawmakers to support the idea.

And for a while after it was completed, the facility seemed to work well. Cabana says the threat of going to long-term isolation was making the rest of the inmates in general population behave.

But then, Cabana says some things started to trouble him. Inmate behavior got worse, in ways that seemed almost unbelievable. Inmates were smearing themselves with urine and feces and throwing it at the officers.

"Some inmates were crazy, and wouldn't know they were throwing urine at somebody, others were just mean and doing it out of pure spite," Cabana said. "But many of them did it out of utter frustration."

And there was another problem: the staff.

"A lot of the staff would just be flat-out abusive to the inmates. They would taunt them, ignore them," Cabana says.

Cabana says he would lie awake at night under the pressure of having to decide whom to send to isolation and whom to release. Then one day, as he walked the tier of his Supermax facility, Cabana says something occurred to him.

"Inmate hauls off and spits at you -- yeah, you want to slap the total crap out of them into the next cell," Cabana says. "Problem is, that takes you down to his level, and we're supposed to be better than that. And as a society, one of the best measures of how far a society has come is what their prisons are like. I think what we're doing in Supermax is, we're taking some bad folks, and we're making them even worse. We're making them even meaner."

Second Thoughts About Supermax

Don Cabana is no longer the warden of Parchman. He retired last year. But his feelings about Supermax haven't changed.

"The biggest single regret I had in my career was having built that unit," he says.

Cabana is not the only one with second thoughts. Brian Belleque, the warden of the Oregon State Pennitentiary in Salem, has them, too.

"We realize that 95 to 98 percent of these inmates here are going to be your neighbor in the community," Belleque says. "They are going to get out."

In 1991, Oregon built something it calls the Intensive Management Unit, or the IMU. Inmates are locked in their cells all day long, for years. It's dark. There are no windows inside.

On a recent visit, many inmates were pacing back and forth in their cells, talking to themselves or hollering at inmates down the hall.

Rethinking Isolation

The IMU looks like a standard isolation unit. But these days, there are some big differences, including therapy for many of the prisoners.

One prisoner named Gregory says that therapy has really helped him.

"Some changes took," Gregory said recently while having a session with the psychiatrist. "I was just a mess. I was a straight mess. I was an animal, and I acted that way."

Oregon has also adopted a system that allows inmates like Gregory to earn their way out of isolation. The longest an inmate can stay in isolation is three years.

And the decision of who is and isn't sent to isolation is no longer in the warden's hands. A three-person panel outside the prison system decides.

Mitch Morrow, the deputy director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, instituted many of the changes.

"This department, for as long as I have been here, has always believed that inmates are people," Morrow says.

'You Need to Change the Inmate'

But changing the system wasn't an easy sell. It took years. Morrow says even now, there are state officials who cling to the idea of long-term isolation.

"It feels good today to lock them up, and for that given moment, you feel safer," Morrow says. "But if that's where you stop the conversation, then you are doing your state a serious injustice. Because you need to change the inmate. You need to provide the inmate the opportunity to change. And if you don't, if you just feel good about locking somebody up, it's a failed model."

Oregon no longer releases inmates directly from segregation to the streets. Now they send them first to classes, and then to prison jobs in the general population, so they can get used to being around people again.

That's not the case in other states. Last year in Texas, prison officials took 1,458 inmates out of their segregation cells, walked them to the prison gates and took the handcuffs off. There's almost no research about the effects of isolation on how well inmates cope on the outside.

That troubles Walter Dickey. Dickey used to run Wisconsin's prisons. Now he's been appointed by a court there to oversee the conditions at the state's Supermax facility.

Dickey says many officials in his state don't see a downside to having a Supermax. He says the state built it because legislators thought they needed it, and most prison officials went along.

"If you are running a corrections system, and you are offered a greater level of control than you otherwise could have, you are going to take it," Dickey says. "Because there's a part of them that says, 'We don't need this,' but there's a part of them that says, 'If you are going to build it, I'll take it, because I can find some use for it.'"

It's the numbers that bother Dickey. When he ran the state's prisons, he says there were, at most, a dozen inmates so dangerous that he took them out of general population. Today, the 500 beds at Wisconsin's Supermax are full -- and most inmates have been there since it opened seven years ago.

Keeping Inmates Out of Long-Term Segregation

At a small California prison on the Nevada border called High Desert, a group of prison officials gather around a metal desk each week. An inmate in a jumpsuit is also there, eagerly waiting for the results.

One prison official recommends that the inmate be released from a new, experimental program because his progress has been so good.

These weekly meetings are part of a new program meant to keep inmates out of long-term segregation. High Desert Warden Tom Felker started the program six months ago. He said he was tired of sending hundreds of inmates to years of isolation.

"I, like a lot of people, looked at it as, 'There's probably a better way,'" Felker says.

Felker took his 40 worst inmates and housed them together. He's taken all their possessions: radios, books, televisions. He banned them from the yard. He told them that if they want these privileges back, they would have to earn them by following a specific, itemized list: attend therapy, school and weekly anger-management classes with a local college professor. The staff keeps detailed notes about their progress.

A Model for a Balanced Approach?

"Just straight rehabilitation in its own right -- that's not realistic. But just warehousing inmates? That's not going to work, either," Felker says. "You have to have a balanced approach."

In the past six months, the results so far have stunned even Felker. Almost every inmate has graduated from the program, and they've stayed out of trouble back in general population. Recently, Felker has been visited by staff from several other prisons in California asking how they can start a program like his.

Before Don Cabana retired from Mississippi's Parchman prison, he tried to reform much about the segregation unit. He wanted to send most of the inmates back to general population. But there are still 1,000 inmates in the unit today.

"Prisons have always had prisons within prisons," Cabana says. "I mean, every prison has its jailhouse for the guys you have to lock up. But the numbers of people we're incarcerating under Supermax conditions in this country -- it's just run away from us. That's not how it's supposed to be."

Like prison officials in Oregon, Wisconsin and California, Cabana says he found that building an isolation unit is a lot easier than taking one apart.