Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Pubdate: Sun, 2 Aug 1998
Author: Lisa Anderson, Chicago Tribune


FLORENCE, Colorado -- If, as some philosophers maintain, nothing tells more
about a society than its treatment of prisoners, the proliferating
supermaximum security prisons speak eloquently of the fears and attitudes
about crime in American.

This minimum-contact, so-called ``supermax'' concept is epitomized in the
United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in
Florence. Inmates call it the Alcatraz of the Rockies. Advocates call it
unfortunate but necessary, given an increasingly violent prison population.
Critics call it a concept that didn't work in 19th-century America and is
in danger of overuse now.

``The question isn't who these prisoners are, the question is who we are,''
said Ben Wolf, of the American Civil Liberties Union's prisons project in

The growing popularity of the costly approach, particularly among states,
represents a profound reversal in American attitudes. For most of this
century, rehabilitation was the overarching goal.

By 1980, however, frustrated by growing crime and rising drug-related
convictions, society supported mandatory minimum sentencing, removing
exercise equipment from prisons, barring Pell grants for inmates' higher
education, and, finally, entire prisons of mostly solitary confinement.

``I think we as a nation are becoming more punitive, and I think we seem to
have a real faith in punishment as something that will work to deter crime.
I think the greater thing is that we just want to get retribution and
revenge,'' said Kevin Wright, a professor of criminal justice at the State
University of New York at Binghampton.

In the arid, remote high desert, the triangular, two-story, high-tech ADX
is almost invisible, as are its 417 male inmates. Many spend 23 of every 24
hours double-locked in an 8-by-12-foot cell behind a steel door and barred
grate. Some spend the day's remaining hour alone as well, exercising in a
small concrete recreation area and subjected to strip searches upon leaving
and re-entering their cells. Except for the guards, there is no direct
human contact.

``One of the fundamental effects it has is on the human senses: sight,
touch, smell, taste. It restricts your world, puts it in a vise really,''
said Raymond Luc Levasseur, 51, serving 40 years for bombings and attempted
bombings in the 1970s.

Speaking through a microphone set in a plexiglass window, he said, ``How
much abuse do you want to put on a person you're going to be with in an
elevator someday or get into an argument with at an intersection? This is
America. What kind of country do you want to live in?''

John Hurley, warden at ADX, observed that the shift in emphasis from the
``medical model of rehabilitation to a more reality-based approach'' of
corrections reflects society's desires.

According to a 1995 survey conducted by the College of Criminal Justice at
Sam Houston State University, in Texas, when asked if the government needed
to put a greater effort into rehabilitating or punishing and putting away
those convicted of violent crimes, the vast majority of respondents opted
for punishment.

The United States locks up a higher proportion of its citizens than any
other industrialized country. In 1980, 20 federal prisons held 30,000
inmates, compared with 94 prisons with 100,000-plus inmates and a $3.3
billion annual budget today.

``The notion that ADX is the future of corrections is entirely wrong. It is
reserved only for the most predatory and violent inmates,'' said Todd
Craig, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, noting that supermax
inmates account for only 0.5 percent of the total 100,000-plus federal
prison population.

ADX may be an anomaly in the federal prison system, but its model clearly
has become a trend in state corrections.

Already, there are 60 ADX-style state facilities. Most, such as the $73
million, 4-month-old supermax in Tamms, Ill., have opened since 1990; more
are on the way.

Few critics deny the need for some facility designed to separate dangerous
inmates from the prison staff and other inmates. However, many question if
the appropriate people are being put into these prisons.

Stuart Grassian, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and
expert on the effects of solitary confinement, said: ``My conclusion is
that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe psychiatric harm, even
among people who had previously suffered no severe psychiatric problems.''

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Checked-by: Mike Gogulski