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.
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As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax

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As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax

As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

They're called by a number of names - Supermax, Intensive Management Units, Secure Housing, Solitary Confinement - but the experience for prisoners is the same, years alone out of public view.

More than 25,000 inmates are serving all or part of their sentences in these prisons, locked up 23 hours a day with little or no human contact. Some have been there for more than 20 years and almost all of these prisoners are scheduled to be released someday.

SIEGEL: Yesterday, we began our series on solitary confinement with a visit to Pelican Bay State Prison in California. It's one of the country's oldest and largest segregation units and it's the model that most other states have followed.

Today, NPR's Laura Sullivan reports that prisons in several places are rethinking the idea of isolation.


Don Cabana 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.

Mr. DON CABANA (Former Warden, Parchman Prison): They were spread out and they worked down the field and they'd just weave back and forth. All day long. If they worked hard, they got a lunch break. If they didn't, they kept on working.

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

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

SULLIVAN: 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 1984, things had changed at Parchman. Much of the prisoner abuse had subsided, but there were new problems.

It was overcrowded, under funded and full of bored, violent inmates, the result of an explosion in gangs and drug crime. Assaults on staff were increasing. Cabana says he was no longer worried about the guards killing the inmates. He was worried about the inmates killing his guards.

Mr. CABANA: I had three officers stabbed one morning by one inmate and the only reason he stabbed them was 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.

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

Mr. CABANA: I sat there and I said, well, Bubba. I tell you, you've made it to the big time. Are you prepared for all the benefits that go with that?

And he said, like what?

And I said, you see, I'm going to lock this place down so tight and so long that you'll never see the sun shine. And you see, I'm going to do it to a thousand inmates in here, not just you.

SULLIVAN: And that's exactly what Cabana did.

In 1989, he looked at states like California, Arizona and Illinois and saw they were creating a new kind of place to put bad inmates, 1,000-bed, high-tech isolation units known as Supermax prisons. Twenty-three hours a day in a windowless cell, one hour alone in a concrete exercise pen. No television, no phones, no physical contact with other people for years.

Mr. CABANA: I got the money for to build it. Didn't have any problems with the legislature. My proposal was to build it to help manage behavior problem inmates.

SULLIVAN: And for a while, it worked great. Cabana says the threat of going to long-term isolation was making the rest of the inmates behave. But then, Cabana says, some things started to trouble him. Inmate behavior was getting worse in ways that seemed almost unbelievable. Inmates were smearing themselves with urine and feces and throwing it on the officers.

Mr. CABANA: Some inmates were crazy and wouldn't know that they were throwing urine at somebody. Others were just mean and would do it out of pure spite. But many of them did it out of utter frustration.

SULLIVAN: And there was another problem.

Mr. CABANA: A lot of the staff had been just flat out abusive to inmates. They would taunt them. They would ignore them.

SULLIVAN: 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.

Mr. CABANA: Inmate hauls off, spits at you. Yeah, you want to slap the tee-total crap out of them into the next cell. 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 to see 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.

SULLIVAN: Don Cabana is no longer the warden of Parchman. He retired last year. His hair is greyer, his belly rounder. But his feelings about Supermax haven't changed.

Mr. CABANA: The biggest single regret I had in my career was having built that unit.

SULLIVAN: Don Cabana is not the only one with second thoughts.

(Soundbite of gate closing)

Mr. BRIAN BELLEQUE (Warden, Oregon State Penitentiary): No inmates are allowed past that front door.

SULLIVAN: Brian Belleque is the warden of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

Mr. BELLEQUE: And no inmate ever comes past this door.

SULLIVAN: He takes me through a maze of hallways and metal doors, up a flight of stairs and into something called the Intensive Management Unit, or the IMU.

Mr. BELLEQUE: We realize that 95 to 98 percent of these inmates here are going to be your neighbor in the community. They are going to get out.

SULLIVAN: Oregon built this place in 1991. It'd dark. There are no windows or natural light. Many inmates are pacing back and forth, talking to themselves or hollering at inmates across the row. It looks like a standard isolation unit. But these days, there are some big differences.

(Soundbite of inmate ruckus)

One big difference is therapy. Prisoners here get to meet once a week with Dr. Dean Longfellow. Longfellow is a psychologist and he settles into a metal folding chair for a session with an inmate named Gregory.

Dr. DEAN LONGFELLOW (Psychologist): Previously, I don't know that you were really programming or getting your thinking screwed on successfully.

SULLIVAN: Gregory was sent to prison for murder. He was sent to isolation for a prison fight. Therapy means he gets to leave his cell once a week. The officers here say Gregory used to be one of their biggest problems, always swearing at them and ripping his cell apart. But Gregory hasn't acted like that in six months now.

GREGORY (Inmate): I was a straight mess. You know what I'm saying. Nervous, nervous, nervous breakdown. You know what I'm saying. It's all that anybody said while I was - I was an animal, you know, and I acted that way.

SULLIVAN: What is the most difficult part about isolation?

GREGORY: I think, not being able to see somebody face to face like I'm looking at you, communicating, which we're doing now. To touch, to hug. Just to feel, you know, human.

SULLIVAN: At least in Gregory's case, this kind of therapy has made a difference. There are four levels in the isolation unit. Gregory's made so much progress, he finds out on this day he's graduating to level 4, the least restrictive level, and may soon get to leave altogether and go back to the regular prison.

GREGORY: That means that I'm getting close to programming out of IMU. It means I also get to spend $30 more in canteen. It also means that I also get to walk without a set of handcuffs on my wrists.

SULLIVAN: Oregon also changed how long an inmate can spend in isolation, not longer than three years. And it's no longer up to the warden who goes to the unit and who doesn't. A three-person panel outside the system decides. Mitch Morrow is the deputy director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and the man behind many of the changes.

Mr. MITCH MORROW (Oregon Department of Corrections): This department, for as long as I have been with it, has always believed that inmates are people.

SULLIVAN: 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.

Mr. MORROW: Because it feels good today. It feels good today to lock them up, and for that given moment, you feel safer, 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 ability to change. And if you don't, if you just feel good about locking somebody up, it's a failed model.

SULLIVAN: Oregon no longer releases inmates directly from segregation to the streets. Now, they send them first to classes and 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 no way to know how these inmates do on the outside. No one is watching them.

At a small California prison on the Nevada border called High Desert, a group of prison officials are gathered around a metal desk staring at the papers in a file folder. An inmate in a jumpsuit is waiting eagerly for the results.

(Soundbite of discussion)

SULLIVAN: 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 says he's grown tired of sending hundreds of inmates to years of isolation.

Mr. TOM FELKER (Warden, High Desert State Prison): I, like a lot of people, looked at, there's probably a better way.

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

Mr. FELKER: Just straight rehabilitation, you know, is unrealistic. By the same token, just warehousing inmates? That's not going to work, either. You've got to have a balanced approach.

SULLIVAN: In just these 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 six other prisons in California. They've been asking how they can start a program like this at their facility.

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.

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

SULLIVAN: Like prison officials in other states, such as Oregon and California, Cabana says he found that building an isolation unit is a lot easier than taking one apart.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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