There’s no such thing as a good day for a prisoner at the highest level of security within the Ohio State Penitentiary, a 504-bed supermax prison in Youngstown, Ohio. Every inmate lives alone in a 7-ft. by 14-ft. cell that resembles nothing so much as a large, concrete closet, equipped with a sink, a toilet, a desk and a molded stool and sleep platform covered by a thin mattress. The solid metal door is outfitted with strips around the sides and bottom, muffling conversation with inmates in adjacent cells. Three times a day, a tray of food is delivered and is eaten alone. The prisoner may spend 23 hours a day in lockdown, emerging to exercise once a day. The lights in the cell never go off, although they may be dimmed a bit at night.
If there’s not much to like about the conditions in Youngstown, there’s not much to like about the people confined there either. These are the men corrections folks like to call “the worst of the worst,” the kind of felons who dealt drugs or led gangs or killed on the outside and continued to do so in prison. For them, maximum security would not be enough–only supermax would do. And say what you will about the draconian environment, it keeps them under control. But that level of control may be counterproductive. It’s possible that the very steps we’re taking to keep society safe and such prisoners in check are achieving just the opposite. The U.S. holds about 2 million people under lock and key, and 20,000 of them are confined in the 31 supermaxes operated by the states and the Federal Government. That may represent only 1% of the inmate population, but it’s a volatile 1%. Push any punishment too far and mental breakdown–or at least a claim of mental breakdown–is sure to follow. When that happens, a constitutional challenge can’t be far behind. In December, officials in Texas and California conceded that the suicide rates in their prisons are on the rise, with the majority occurring among inmates in solitary. This prompted an outcry against both systems. Lawyers for accused terrorist facilitator Jose Padilla challenged his fitness last month to stand trial, arguing that his 3½ years in solitary lockdown at a South Carolina military brig have rendered him unable to assist in his own defense. Around the same time, convicted bomber Eric Rudolph began corresponding with a reporter for a Colorado newspaper, describing his days in his 7-ft. by 12-ft. cell as a form of confinement “designed to inflict as much misery and pain as constitutionally permissible.” But is it constitutionally permissible And even if it is, is this the kind of open-ended mental-health experiment the government should be running “We have to ask ourselves why we’re doing this,” says psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and a consultant in criminal cases. “These aren’t a bunch of cold, controlled James Cagneys. We’re taking criminals who are already unstable and driving them crazy.” The origin of solitary confinement in the U.S. is actually benign. It was the Philadelphia Quakers of the 19th century who dreamed up the idea, establishing a program at the city’s Walnut Street prison under which inmates were housed in isolation in the hope of providing them with an opportunity for quiet contemplation during which they would develop insight into their crimes. That’s not what has happened.