Supermax or Super cruel? Prisons: a U.S. Justice Department report on Maryland's ultimate prison may pit security against the Constitution.


FIVE YEARS AGO, some of the last inmates from the Maryland Penitentiary's notorious South Wing crossed Madison Street to a high-technology prison of the future, bidding goodbye to 19th-century quarters that had famously been dubbed the "innermost circle of hell."

But now that new prison -- the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, better known as "Supermax," designed as the ultimate control unit for the state's most incorrigible prisoners -- is itself being painted as hell of a different sort. And the verdict on Supermax -- small though it is, relative to some others around the country -- may help the nation come to some larger conclusion about whether strictly controlled, supermaximum security prisons are worth their economic and social costs.

In a report forwarded to Gov. Parris N. Glendening two weeks ago, investigators for the U.S. Department of Justice's civil-rights division said Supermax has been operating in violation of the Constitution, depriving inmates of proper mental health services, medical care and exercise.

There is a nationwide movement to build Supermax-style prisons for a criminal population that appears to correctional staff as increasingly out of control. More than 30 control units of some type exist around the nation, with new ones in the planning stages in Wisconsin and Illinois. Meanwhile, an emerging, opposite movement seeks to shut down segregation prisons, based on the notion that the rigid lifestyle just makes difficult inmates worse.

"What I believe is that what you're seeing across the country is a larger and larger percentage of the population being housed in isolation under the guise of security issues," said Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons and New Jersey criminal-justice coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee. "Lock yourself in your bathroom for four hours and see how you do, and see if you need to lock someone away for 10 years because they're troublesome."

To prison managers, the control units are a boon -- a way to deal with the "10 percenters," that small population of inmates responsible for a large portion of their troubles.

"I think most correctional professionals will agree that offenders today are more violent, more assaultive and in need of very close supervision," said Robert Verdeyen, director of standards and accreditation for the American Correctional Association. "As a result of that, the institutions are having to be designed to accommodate the ability to supervise and provide the additional security for those violent offenders."

Prisoner advocates say "Supermax" and prisons like it also are dumping grounds for "political" prisoners -- inmates who repeatedly speak out, are seen as leaders, or file too many lawsuits against their custodians. Moreover, prisoners with mental problems are likely to land in Supermaxes, where the isolated regimen provides fertile ground for the blooming of paranoia and other symptoms of psychosis, experts say.

"What you do in these settings is you take a prisoner and make them as sick, as crazy, as violent as you possibly can, and these people get out in the community," said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who .. has evaluated isolation units at a number of prisons and testified on behalf of inmates in a leading "supermax" case.

Predictably, the two sides are far apart on the issue of what constitutes an acceptable middle ground.

Their debate is playing out on the rocky terrain of the Eighth Amendment -- a confusing area of the Constitution, especially where the rights of prisoners are concerned. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1994 case called Farmer vs. Brennan, said that the amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment applies to prison "conditions" when officials ignore obvious, substantial risks that inmates will come to harm as a result of a prison's operation.

A lawsuit protesting the severe conditions at California's Pelican Bay prison put the Farmer rules to an immediate test. In a lengthy opinion last year, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson painstakingly detailed evidence of abuses at Pelican Bay, from outright torture of inmates to inadequate medical and psychological treatment in the prison's Secure Housing Unit, which shares some of the characteristics of Maryland's Supermax.

Judge Henderson stopped short of condemning the concept of "supermaximum" security completely, ruling that prison officials could continue to house inmates in Pelican Bay's segregation section. But for inmates with symptoms of psychiatric problems, or "unreasonably high risk" of developing them, the judge found the conditions of severe isolation took from inmates a basic provision indeed -- their sanity.

Maryland's Supermax, opened in 1989, holds up to 288 prisoners who spend their days alone in their 65-square-foot cells, with no jobs, classes or programs to fill their time. They eat in their cells and rarely see one another, yelling to communicate through the vent system.

The population there includes 105 murderers and 19 rapists, as well as other prisoners who are escape risks or simply unmanageable in other settings, according to state correctional officials.

Some inmates regularly throw "correctional cocktails" -- mixtures feces, urine and other bodily fluids. In an attitude of defiance, some refuse to come out of their cells, forcing officers to conduct "extraction" procedures with high risks for everyone involved. Some regularly masturbate in front of female staff, causing prison officials to require prisoners to see psychologists with a correctional officer present.

"It is difficult for society to fully comprehend the adverse impact MCAC [Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center] has on its suspect-victims, because that impact is psychological, moral and spiritual," one Supermax inmate wrote to a reporter.

"When society does get a gust of MCAC's adverse impact upon us that 'gust' is usually provided by news media about either prison disturbances or a freshly-released-from-prison, so-called ex-con's expression of his altered state of mind, which is nothing short of frustration turned hate turned crime. The revolving prison door!"

Law-abiding, taxpaying citizens with no loved ones behind bars have reason to care what happens in Supermax. They're paying for it -- to the tune of $40,000 per prisoner each year in operating costs, twice what it costs to house the average Maryland inmate. Furthermore, most Supermax inmates will be released one day -- and society as a whole will have to deal with their behavior.

To be sure, no one -- not even the Maryland citizens who sought the Justice Department investigation -- is alleging that the local Supermax's problems approach the severity of those at Pelican Bay. Investigators at the Maryland prison found no evidence of physical abuse of prisoners, though they continue to receive complaints about excessive force from inmates. And, until more detailed reports of what consultants found at Supermax are made available, it will be difficult to determine just how serious -- and how well-documented -- other problems are.

Richard A. Lanham Sr., Maryland's Commissioner of Correction, stresses that Supermax inmates got all the "basics" and that the prison operates according to the Constitution. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said it was "outrageous" and "inflammatory" mention Pelican Bay in the same breath as Supermax. "The fact that they have to reach so far to make the comparison makes you suspicious of the people who wrote this," she said, referring to the Justice Department report.

State officials privately wonder whether the real agenda of the federal investigation was to clean up Supermax or to make new law nationally, capitalizing on the Pelican Bay decision to expand the scope of inmate civil rights.

But certain aspects of the California case bear a striking resemblance to what investigators report about Supermax.

Initial medical screenings were done by nurses who looked over the inmate's file, without ever seeing the new prisoner unless such an examination was "indicated" by the record. "This is contrary to the standard in the field, which requires a face-to-face intake screening," wrote Deval L. Patrick, President Clinton's assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Inmate records were found to be disorganized and, in some cases, missing. As at Pelican Bay, conflicting diagnoses had sometimes been recorded about the same prisoner. Justice Department investigators also noted that in some cases, prisoners were being treated with lithium without being evaluated for it, a practice that posed serious health risks.

A September 1994 audit of the prison by the state's Commission on Correctional Standards found a few problems in this area -- for example, it noted that doctors were co-signing medication orders made by physician's assistants beyond the 48-hour deadline specified by state policy.

On the whole, however, the audit concluded that "the facility continues to be well-managed and operated by professional and experienced staff." According to their report, the audit team interviewed 11 staff members -- and only two inmates.

And that is the central problem for prisoner advocates like Kerness -- the notion of whether anyone will care about what a criminal has to say. "These are not incredibly successful lawsuits," she said. "The Department of Corrections says this is our bailiwick -- security. Who's going to argue with that?"

I= Kate Shatzkin covers criminal-justice issues for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/19/96

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