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A Question of Control

Prison officials say the isolation unit is used only for `the worst of the worst.' But

prisoner rights advocates say it's an increasingly common -- and unjustifiable -- form of


Angela Davis, Cassandra Shaylor

Sunday, April 9, 2000

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle


When Linda Garcia refused to leave her cell at Valley State Prison for Women because she didn't want to submit

to a strip search, eight male guards in riot gear pepper sprayed her, jammed into her tiny cell and restrained her

while a female guard conducted the search, a procedure Garcia likened to rape.

Vaughn Dortch, who has a diagnosed mental illness, was removed from his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison and

placed by correctional officers in a bath of scalding hot water. The guards scrubbed his burning body with a wire

brush, taunting him with racist epithets. Dortch sustained third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body as a

result of this abuse.

Both of these prisoners were confined in security housing units (SHUs) in California prisons. Stories like theirs are

increasingly common in SHUs, or control units, the highest security level in an expanding network of state and

federal prisons.

These units are designed for the long-term and total isolation of prisoners, who are confined 23 hours a day in

cells that are typically 6 by 8 feet -- the size of a small bathroom. Often operated by remote control, these units

permit only the most minimal interaction with other human beings. Even guards remain at a distance, seeing

prisoners only when they deliver meals. In Washington state, one of the newest versions of these modern-day

dungeons -- called a ``supermax'' -- is run entirely by computer. In most control units, prisoners are allowed three

one-hour solitary exercise periods each week in cement yards, often smaller than dog runs in kennels.

Prisoners held in these units say they are treated worse than caged animals. This may very well be true: At a time

when zoos are eliminating cages in favor of habitats with greater freedom of movement, more and more human

beings are relegated to bolted cages. The correctional community argues that these control units are the only sure

way to house the ``worst of the worst'' prisoners within the system. But studies show that this security level

exceeds what is necessary for most of the prisoners incarcerated in the units. A 1995 Congressional Oversight

Committee examined the Marion, Ill., control unit and found that 80 percent of men housed there did not require

such a high level of security.

Prison officials often reel off the names of a few high-profile violent prisoners kept in control units to justify the

confinement of hundreds of others. However, researchers have discovered that many of these prisoners are

mentally ill. It is hardly surprising that total solitary confinement causes further mental deterioration.

Control units have also been used to punish jailhouse lawyers who file suits against departments of correction or

who help other prisoners with legal work.

For those prisoners who are violent, time spent in the SHU environment, which allows for no constructive outlet

for feelings of anger and frustration, only makes them more violent and self-destructive.

The widespread use of control units is a fairly recent trend. Just 15 years ago, most prisoners rarely spent more

than 30 days in isolation. According to the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons, there are now about

20,000 prisoners confined in 57 supermax units in 42 states. The current boom in prison building, coupled with

the move away from rehabilitation and toward repression in prison, has contributed to an increase in the number

of these units. Now entire institutions modeled on the control unit are opening across the nation.

The rise of control units is disturbing by itself. But we should be even more concerned when we consider the

current context of the control unit -- mass imprisonment and an expanding prison industrial complex. According to

a recent study by the Justice Policy Institute, the United States, which accounts for only 5 percent of the world's

population, incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Moreover, half of the 2 million prisoners in the

country's prisons and jails have been convicted of nonviolent offenses; an estimated 60 percent are in for

drug-related offenses.

The racial disproportions of the general prison population are especially reflected in control units. At Valley State

in Chowchilla, for example, 65 percent of women confined in the SHU are women of color. At Pelican Bay, 83

percent of SHU-confined prisoners are men of color; the majority (66 percent) are Latino.

In men's SHUs, this racial differential can be explained by the practice of giving identified ``gang'' members

indeterminate SHU sentences. This means that they do not leave the SHU until they parole, die, or name other

prisoners as gang members.

Steve Castillo is currently serving an indeterminate sentence in the Pelican Bay SHU for assisting alleged prison

gang members with their legal cases. He has challenged the California Department of Corrections' gang validation

process, which bases gang membership on vague evidence and loose affiliations. Being African American or

Latino from a county known for its gangs can by itself result in a gang label and a SHU commitment.

Recent incidents in California prisons demonstrate how prison guards exploit the prevalence of gangs to create

and foster conflict. At Corcoran, for example, guards set up fights between members of rival gangs and then shot

and killed men on the yard. These shootings reveal the complicity of the prison administration, which promotes the

very gang activity it presumes to punish by means of the control unit.

The stress of confinement in a control unit can eventually cause psychological deterioration. Many prisoners report

extreme mood swings, uncontrollable crying spells and a desire to harm themselves. For mentally ill and mentally

disabled prisoners, SHU time is devastating. Some prisoners experience hallucinations and paranoid delusions.

Many deteriorate to the point of yelling incessantly, banging their heads against the cement walls, or smearing

feces and urine on themselves. Ironically, this behavior, which is produced by the SHU, can be used to justify

longer SHU terms.

``Prisoners are in fact punished for their mental illness -- with isolation, harassment and often additional prison

time,'' said Leslie DiBenedetto of California Prison Focus, a group that advocates for the elimination of control


The closing of state mental hospitals and the defunding of mental health services has resulted in the criminalization

of vast numbers of mentally ill people. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report indicates that over a quarter of

a million mentally ill people are housed in U.S. jails and prisons. Changes in sentencing guidelines, such as

mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, prohibit judges from taking mental illness into account.

Some prisoners who exhibit extreme manifestations of mental illness as a result of SHU confinement receive

temporary treatment in mental hospitals. However, according to state mandate, prisoners are returned as soon as

they are stabilized (usually with heavy doses of psychotropic medication).

Control unit prisoners are barred from participating in educational, vocational or religious programs. In this

environment of extreme sensory deprivation and forced idleness, the only available activity is often reading and

writing. Given that 40 percent of U.S. prisoners are functionally illiterate, this amounts to a total lack of stimulation.

Despite the knowledge that the cultivation of outside relationships is crucial to a successful transition back into the

community after release, SHU prisoners are rarely allowed contact with family or friends. This means that SHU

prisoners are headed toward the revolving door that leads out, but also back in, to prison.

Women in control units face the additional burden of sexual harassment by the mostly male staff. Women in the

SHU at Valley State report daily assaults on their bodily integrity. Male guards, who can see into the cells at all

times, watch the women changing their clothes and using the toilet. According to SHU prisoners, showers and

strip searches become spectacles for voyeuristic guards, who do not hesitate to make obscene comments.

Prisoners further accuse guards of requiring them to expose themselves in exchange for medical treatment or

hygiene supplies.

Over 60 percent of female prisoners have been sexually or physically abused at some point in their lives. Prison

sexual abuse repeats past trauma as it sexualizes punishment. Robin Jones, a Valley State SHU prisoner, for

example, reported that guards so consistently sexually harassed her that she papered over the window in the door

of her cell whenever she dressed or used the toilet -- an action that resulted in an extended SHU sentence.

Let us not forget that we are talking about the United States -- the country where we perceive ourselves as

civilized and enlightened in comparison to the rest of the world. How can we reconcile this notion of the nation

with the fact that we imprison more people -- and under increasingly repressive conditions -- than any other

country? The use of extended isolation and sensory deprivation is recognized as torture around the world. Recent

reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the use of control units in the United

States as a violation of international human rights law.

The emergence of control units and supermax prisons marks a throwback to practices that were largely dispensed

with 200 years ago. Solitary confinement originally was introduced as an alternative to corporal punishment, but

the practice was phased out because it caused extreme psychic disturbances and also because it was ineffective in

assisting prisoners who would eventually return to communities outside of prison. Inspired by what he witnessed

on a tour of a Pennsylvania prison in 1842, English novelist Charles Dickens wrote: ``I hold this slow and daily

tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.'' What would

Dickens say now if he visited the SHU at Pelican Bay, which cages 1,500 prisoners in total isolation for years on


Despite the acknowledged decline in crime, more and more prisons are built, more and more people are

imprisoned and tough-on-crime rhetoric shows no signs of abating. The isolation institutionalized in the control unit

has become so common that we treat it as normal and necessary. The prison has become a site of extra-legal

punishment -- sexual harassment and abuse, medical neglect, psychological damage and destruction of families

and communities. Do we want to promote a system that people 100 years from now will think about with the

same revulsion we now feel toward such historical punishments as burnings at the stake? Do we want to live in a

society that condones control units, supermax prisons and the unspeakable brutality of high-tech, long-term


Perhaps we should ask these questions now rather than later.


California's prison population:

1977: 19,623

2000: 161,094


Below is a sampling of Web sites that address prison issues:






Angela Davis is a history of consciousness professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Cassandra Shaylor is a staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners With Children in San Francisco.

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle Page 1