An American Konzentrationslager: Wallen Ridge super-maximum security prison in Virginia, a 700-inmate experiment in the propagation of insanity
Jails and prisons have become the final destination for the mentally ill… it’s the most pressing issue facing psychiatry today.
Psychiatrist Steven Lamberti
At the Pathways session on 15 July 2014, the present author, Mark Conlon, together with other members of the group, watched a disturbing television documentary. An investigation in the BBC’s veteran current affairs series Panorama, ‘Bedlam Behind Bars’ addressed an especially reprehensible aspect of America’s neoconservative devolution, namely the hyperbolic growth of US prisons and their role in the criminalization of the country’s mentally ill citizens. It was originally broadcast on 11 July, and we’re grateful to Darren, one of our recent recruits, for bringing his recording of the show to the meeting.
Reporter Hilary Andersson discussed the plight of more than a million psychiatrically disturbed prisoners immured in a carceral leviathan from which, on the evidence of the programme, all vestiges of humanity have been obliterated. Viewers were shown a young bipolar inmate in a Michigan prison, Tim Souders, jailed for the heinous offence of stealing paintball guns. He was seen heading into solitary confinement as punishment for an infringement of prison rules. In the middle of a heatwave, the water to his cell was disconnected, and he was shackled to a concrete slab. Within a day, he had become delusional. After five days, he was shifted to another cell and again chained down, this time stripped of his urine-soaked clothing. He strained to feed himself slices of bread flung onto his bare chest. Eventually, death resulted from dehydration and the excessive temperature. Moving on to Chicago’s overflowing Cook County Jail, we glimpsed a fraction of the 30% to 50% of inmates, totalling possibly 30,000 per year, assessed as having significant psychological ailments. The jail, along with Rikers Island in New York, is effectively one of the two biggest psychiatric facilities in the United States, even if not officially classified as such. The sheriff in charge, Tom Dart, conceded that it is no place for those with mental health diagnoses, and it was impossible to disagree after hearing of detainees assaulted by his own officers, or left to languish in squalid cells for twenty-three hours a day. And so it continued through a litany of hideous malfeasance, from pepper spray-assisted cell extractions ruled “cruel and unconstitutional” by a federal judge, to frigid isolation cells and recourse to leg irons and belly chains in a panopticon-like suicide unit in Houston’s Harris County Jail. By the end one was thankful that, in the era of dumbed-down media and dwindling attention spans, Panorama has been truncated in length from an hour to thirty minutes. As with Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, sometimes concision is preferable to a surfeit of horror.
‘Bedlam Behind Bars’ was a cogent indictment of institutionalized savagery, but nevertheless it may be useful to have some context beyond the programme’s largely ahistorical and wholly apolitical examination of its subject, not to speak of the Corporation’s tiresome insistence on “balance” via prison administrators’ insidious defence of the indefensible. (For much of the information that follows, I’m indebted to Alan Elsner’s book Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons, a critique all the more damning for being written from a standpoint of irenic reformism.) It is a sorry tale indeed. The US imprisonment rate, which for most of the twentieth century hovered around a normative 0.1% of the population, began in the mid-1970s to soar to grotesque levels. A landmark was reached in 2008 when it passed the 1% mark; since 1980, it has risen by a colossal 790%. As psychologists Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame) put it, a “runaway punishment train” has been set in motion, one that has overtaken in punitiveness such exemplars of penal enlightenment as China, Iran and Thailand. A “war on drugs” rhetoric, bolstered by zero-tolerance policing and rigid “three strikes and you’re out” legislation, furnished the alibi for a sweeping incarceration of those deemed surplus to requirements in the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes of ascendant neoliberalism. In his memoirs, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, summed up the paradigm thus: “At the Reagan Justice Department, my predecessor and I carried on a continuing crusade… arguing for tougher and more effective sentencing, stressing the protective rather than the ‘rehabilitationist’ model of penology, and pushing for construction of additional prison space so that convicted criminals could be kept away from society.” To state it in language less redolent of the banality of bureaucratic evil, prisons expanded to become, to quote Angela Davis’s fine polemic Are Prisons Obsolete?, “a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.”
All this, a tightening “culture of control” as penologist David Garland characterizes it, would have been bad enough merely as state-orchestrated repression. Worse, in a process the Wall Street Journal dubbed in 1994 an emergent “prison-industrial complex” – a counterpart to the bloated “military-industrial complex” identified by Eisenhower – prisons have morphed into privatized businesses, or what Mike Davis more piquantly terms “hell factories” in a 1995 scrutiny of the phenomenon in The Nation. The trend has been exacerbated by budgetary constraints in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Crony capitalists such as the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group pocket government fees for running institutions dedicated to wringing profits from wretchedness and despair. GEO, in its former incarnation as Wackenhut, issued a statement fulsomely priding itself on “a turnkey approach to the development of new correctional and mental health institutions that includes design, construction, financing, and operations.” Translating from corporate cant, what this means is that staffing ratios and per capita inmate spending are drastically cut, while prisoners toil, across a vast range of jobs from clothes manufacture to computer assembly, for wages of less than $1 per day, a resurrection of the “contractual penal servitude” of the 1820s and slavery in all but name. After drudging for their nominal remuneration, they have insult piled on injury through being charged preposterous sums for accessing substandard medical services. “There is no way to justify handing convicted criminals free health care while law-abiding taxpayers are required to make co-payments for health services,” thundered Republican Senator Michael F. Nozollio, touting his sponsorship of 2002 legislation designed to impose on felons charges of $7. “By revoking this policy, we will bring justice to both the criminals who thumb their noses at the law and to the law-abiding citizens struggling to pay for their own health care.” No matter that some of those billed will be in custody because they cannot afford bail, or that others are incarcerated for transgressing laws that would not be on the statute but for the avid lobbying of GEO and its ilk.
US penal doctrine is deeply entwined with race and class: one in three black and one in six Hispanic men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives and, with rare exceptions, only the poor find themselves behind bars. There are more African-Americans in prison than there were slaves in the antebellum South. Increasingly, however, prisons function too as substitute asylums; as the latter were emptied from the 1960s onward, prisons assumed the task of inoculating society against the “deviancy” of people who could not adapt themselves to the iron-cage “rationality” of a capitalist economy. An assertion of Michel Foucault, that asylums, factories and schools are all cognates of the prison, is being verified more palpably than Foucault foresaw. It hardly needs emphasizing that prisons are ill-suited to serve as surrogate sanatoria. Rape, with the posttraumatic symptoms that arise from it, is rife, perpetrated by inmates and wardens alike. Prisoners whose reactions are slowed by psychotropic drugs may struggle to obey orders with the mandated alacrity, but often dosages are increased with the aim of enforcing conformity, a vicious circle whereby shambling wrecks of human beings – victims of what sardonic prison argot calls the “Thorazine shuffle” – are handed ever harsher punishments for falling short of the brisk deference demanded. Those harder punishments include solitary confinement, something that in short order can corrode the psyche of even the mentally robust. Psychiatric professionals, where they exist, typically ally with prison officers in taking an antagonistic stance toward those ostensibly under their care. At the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, currently being sued on behalf of inmates by the American Civil Liberties Union, a psychologist’s treatment plan for a suicidal prisoner comprised three words: “Encourage behavioral compliance.” The method of compliance chosen was to use Mace to asphyxiate the man in his cell. The worst conditions prevail in the seclusionary “supermax” facilities that proliferated in the 1990s, where an almost total lack of human interaction seems calculated to induce psychological turmoil, up to and including florid manifestations of psychosis. Then there is death row, a setting so depressing that many elect to escape it by waiving appeals in favour of the desperate “volunteerism” of embracing execution.
Where America leads, Britain as piteous lapdog generally follows, in this area by adhering to the US template of populist “law and order” asperity generating a plentiful supply of convicts ripe for exploitation in pursuit of the sacred goal of shareholder value maximization. Britain’s prison population is at a record high of 85,000, housed, or perhaps one should say warehoused, in 126 institutions, with more serving life sentences than in all other European nations combined. The sharp rise in numbers is entirely due to stricter sentencing rather than an escalation of crime (in Foucauldian terminology, a discourse of punitive reason has become detached from actual illegalities). In November of last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, not content with the morbidly tyrannical prisons-within-prisons of such “close supervision centres” as the notorious Woodhill in Milton Keynes, introduced a gruelling regime of solitary confinement throughout the system. The practice was castigated by the United Nations in 1990, and declared unconstitutionally torturous by the US Supreme Court as long ago as 1890, yet is championed by Grayling as a counter to what he ludicrously portrays as the “frills” of liberal governance. Even when not subjected to this ordeal, the default status of inmates is now a “basic level” of obligatory prison uniform and deprivation of personal possessions. Grayling’s bibliophobia has occasioned greater press coverage, but arguably these dehumanizing moves are more ominously contemptible than his restrictions on reading matter. Predictably, they contributed to a leap in cases of suicide from 30 in 2013 to 42 in just the first six months of 2014. No fewer than 23,183 incidents of self-harm occurred in 2013, a statistic in unabated expansion since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to office in 2010. In an act of Oedipal horror, a prisoner at HMP Nottingham recently gouged out his own eyes. As highlighted by the chaotically violent Glen Parva in Leicestershire, a “toxic environment” in the estimation of the Howard League for Penal Reform, little effort is made to ameliorate conditions in young offender institutions. The Chief Inspectorate of Prisons found our local specimen, HMYOI Werrington on the outskirts of the Potteries, to be weak in preventing self-harm and bullying, but vigorous in conducting forcible strip searches.
At present, approximately 15% of this dismal gulag is privatized, but that will only increase when policy is steered by a mania to transfer public revenues – in this instance one flinches from saying “assets” – into private hands. It might have been assumed that scant leeway existed for an aggravation of conditions, but corporate involvement is demonstrating otherwise. A cloacal purgatory of violence and illicit drugtaking in consequence of being placed at the tender mercy of Serco, HMP Doncaster, in advice offered by the Howard League’s Frances Crook that is sure to fall on deaf ears, “should no longer be left in the hands of a multinational which puts shareholders’ interests before public safety.” G4S, which also manages the lethal “security” apparatus guarding Israel’s West Bank settlements, obliges inmates at HMP Oakwood to wait five weeks for a mental health referral after slicing an astonishing £10,000 from the standard cost of a year-long prison placement; occurrences of self-harm topped 600 last year, in comparison to 56 at the similarly sized, state-run Wandsworth. Because insufficient profits beckoned, A4E has just unilaterally torn up its contract to provide education in London prisons as a participant in the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS). Denied education, “offenders” are herded into menial and repetitive work as a super-exploited proletariat, in what amounts to a particularly obscene species of post-Fordist outsourcing. Average earnings are £8 a week. Unlike the riots that regularly erupt at private prisons, this is not hushed up as a dirty secret. On its website, which features encomia from legal aid despoiler Kenneth Clarke and the head of the Confederation of British Industry, G4S rhapsodizes as follows on the advantages of a literally captive labour force unencumbered by sick pay, holiday leave, trade union membership or the ability to strike: “We have a dedicated workforce with a variety of skills which can work around business’ needs with the minimum of bureaucracy.” No mention of a minimum wage, it is to be noted, but the definite assurance of minimal “bureaucracy” (i.e., workers’ rights). I.G. Farben and the ideologues of Arbeit macht frei could not have boasted of a rapport more unabashed in its amorality.
Prospects for enlightened reform are bleak. What is referred to in government circles as the “prison estate” – remove the first “e” from “estate” and you have an example of Freudian parapraxis – is, to borrow a phrase from the prison letters collected in George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, the most “terrible, ugly machine” the ruling class has at its disposal, and unlikely to turn prettier at a time of indurate political reaction. Georg Ruschke and Otto Kirchheimer, the forefathers of radical criminology, pointed out in their 1931 study Punishment and Social Structure that reforms are constrained by the “heuristic maxim” that, in order to deter crime, circumstances in prison must be grimmer than those endured by the “lower strata” of the working class in the outside world. As the labour market under neoliberalism is relentlessly degraded, and poverty deepens, correspondingly prisons can be expected to become sites of ever fiercer disciplinary coercion. Quite transparently, the objective is to decant into prison as many as possible of the scroungers, troubled families and feral underclasses (the various labels of priggish contumely are interchangeable), where surplus value can be pumped out of them under compulsion, or they can simply be forgotten about. They will be joined by mentally ill prisoners guilty of no offence save that of overburdening an NHS buckling under endless fiscal austerity. Meanwhile, corporate crime on a breathtaking scale goes unchastised, confirming Bertolt Brecht’s mockery of bourgeois notions of criminality – “robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one” – to be no less incisive today than it was in the age of the Wall Street Crash.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who had first-hand knowledge of the brutalities of Tsarist imprisonment, wrote in his 1862 novel The House of the Dead: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Given what we know from the Stanford Prison Experiment of the implacable tendency of a carceral milieu to make rabid authoritarians of the jailors who control it, and abject victims of inmates, I would contend that a society disfigured by prisons has forfeited its claim to be considered civilized, even before factoring into the equation that prisons under capitalism have their raison d’etre in sustaining inequities of power and property. For prisons to have become moneymaking enterprises, and a repository for mentally ill people whose confinement is a source of profit, is monstrous beyond words. When we viewed the Panorama documentary, I was struck by the fact that the programme drew spontaneous cries of outrage from Pathways members. A situation readily perceived by the mentally “ill” as repugnant is, by contrast, regarded with equanimity by its political overseers, or reckoned by them to be not nightmarish enough. A section of the “normal” populace, moreover, revels in callow fantasies of battling “crime” – the ideological and socially constructed nature of which is rarely questioned – with retributive sadism. I was left wondering whether our whole codification of sanity is fundamentally askew.