Solitary Time

We build our own prisons, and lock ourselves in: 

The ADX is the highest-security prison in the country. It was designed to be escape-proof, the Alcatraz of the Rockies, a place to incarcerate the worst, most unredeemable class of criminal — “a very small subset of the inmate population who show,” in the words of Norman Carlson, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “absolutely no concern for human life.” Ted Kaczynski and the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph call the ADX home. The 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is held there, too, along with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and the former Bonanno crime-family boss Vincent Basciano. Michael Swango, a serial-killing doctor who may have poisoned 60 of his patients, is serving three consecutive life sentences; Larry Hoover, the Gangster Disciples kingpin made famous by rappers like Rick Ross, is serving six; the traitorous F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen, a Soviet spy, 15.


Robert Hood, the warden of the ADX from 2002 to 2005, told me that when he first arrived on the campus, he was struck by “the very stark environment,” unlike any other prison in which he ever worked or visited — no noise, no mess, no prisoners walking the hallways. When inmates complained to him, he would tell them, “This place is not designed for humanity,” he recalled. “When it’s 23 hours a day in a room with a slit of a window where you can’t even see the Rocky Mountains — let’s be candid here. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.”

Hood was not trying to be cruel with such frankness. The ADX was built explicitly to house men often already serving multiple life sentences and thus facing little disincentive to, say, murder a guard or another prisoner. Still, during his own tenure, Hood said he made a point of developing one-on-one relationships with as many inmates as possible — he described Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano as “a very likable guy, believe it or not,” and he bonded with the Unabomber over their shared interest in running marathons — in hopes of eliciting good behavior in exchange for whatever he could do to make their sentences more bearable. But he also needed them to understand that even as warden, he lacked the authority to change the rules of their confinement. In the past, Hood has memorably described the ADX as “a clean version of hell.”

Five years ago, a major lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons would have sounded quixotic. But in the present moment, the ADX case feels like the crest of a wave, as the excessive use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has come under intensifying scrutiny. Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, held the first-ever congressional hearing on the issue in 2012. Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, testified that “a shockingly high percentage” of the prisoners in solitary confinement are mentally ill, “often profoundly so” — approximately one-third of the segregated prisoners on average, though in some units the figure rises to 50 percent. The emptiness that pervades solitary-confinement units “has led some prisoners into a profound level of what might be called ‘ontological insecurity,’ ” Haney, who worked as a principal researcher on the Stanford Prison Experiment while in graduate school, told the senators. “They are not sure that they exist and, if they do, exactly who they are.”

I am as anti-capital punishment as they come. But it would be kinder to shoot these men in the head. It would be kinder to hang them, electrocute them, inject them with lethal drugs. It would be kinder to poison them with their evening meals. It would be kinder to shackle them to a rock, let the tide take them out. It would be easier and cheaper, too, but mostly it would be kinder.

Not kinder for them. Kinder for us.

Let’s be clear: We have created a culture of fear in this country that began probably around the time the Pilgrims landed but really got kicked into high gear with the War on Drugs and cable news and shows like America’s Most Wanted. If you watch enough TV midday, you begin to understand why we are all so fucking insane. It is a constant stream of what is out there trying to kill us, reinforced by authority figures updating us on terrorist alert levels and toxic chemicals in our baby bottles.

We are living under threat, so we build these walls and we lock the threats away. And we think that’s what we’re locking away, the Ted Kaczynski people, the underwear bombers, the people who want to destroy society.

(Those people have not killed a fraction of the people murdered by those we honor with state funerals on the regular, but it’s not a numbers game, for which I’m sure Richard Nixon thanks God.)

We think that’s what we’re putting away, the serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, and cult leaders, and everything else CSI gives us. Those are the people in those places, and we slam the door.

On the mean and angry, on the really really stupid, on the guys on their third strike who have no other way out, on the people who got caught up in something they didn’t understand because they have the IQs of four-year-olds.  Those are the people in those places, too.

As a child in Mitchell, Ind., Shelby hunted squirrel and rabbit for supper and would occasionally trade the meat to old-timers for food stamps. His parents drank, and Shelby developed a taste of his own. (His favorite cocktail was a mixture of Everclear and Wild Turkey, which he called Wilder Turkey.) He went to prison in his late teens after pulling a shotgun on a man who owed him $2, and again in his 20s following a string of burglaries. He also began experiencing schizophrenic episodes in which he heard God’s voice in his head. It’s not difficult to imagine that Shelby’s life would have followed a different trajectory had he received comprehensive psychological treatment.

We use these words like they’re magic. SUPERMAX, like a comic book, like a brand of sports drink. We have the SUPERMAX, like it’s vitamins, and it’s all gonna be okay if we just take enough SUPERMAX. And anybody who says there is such a thing as too much SUPERMAX and by the way that isn’t a real thing is obviously a terrorist-loving pussy who doesn’t understand the way the world is now.

As if people aren’t people anymore. As if even Ted Kaczynski deserves this. As if it’s about deserving at all. We go all what if someone did that to someone you love, and yes, you’re right, and thank you for proving my point for me. If the only argument is vengeance … it’s mine, saith the Lord. Get thine own sandbox. That’s not because you’ll all get yours in the end. It’s because nobody else should be forced to carry it.

It would be kinder to shoot these men in the head. Not kinder for them.

Kinder for us. We build our own prisons, and lock ourselves in. And then we’re in solitary, year after quiet, lonely year.


5 thoughts on “Solitary Time

  1. There are dangers in not isolating certain criminals.
    There are dangers in not punishing, with visibility and an element of the terrible, certain acts.

    Should Nichols be running loose now, after having aided McVeigh in the OKC bombing? I think not, and I think many Americans who remember those searing images of a firefighter carrying a child’s corpse and that shattered building where so many children died to satisfy the perverted lust of a crazed terrorist — make no mistake: McVeigh was exactly that, nothing less and nothing more and nothing else — would agree with me.

    Adam Lanza took the easy way out for himself knowing that if he lived and was convicted he’d go somewhere like ADX. So did Cho. So did those young cowards at Columbine.

    For some things, the death penalty is too easy a punishment.

    1. Has anybody, anywhere said that Nichols should be running loose now, especially within the context of the “necessity” of SUPERMAX?
      You engage in the sophistry identified by the author, “personalizing” specific incidents to avoid the necessity of accepting or rejecting the real issue: when does appropriate punishment become egregious torture?

  2. I think there’s a difference between “running loose” and not being in solitary confinement, being driven mad day by day. We definitely need to have a conversation in this country about just what we’re trying to accomplish with our system of incarceration. Thousands of lives are thrown away in our penal system each year (through any number of means, from unjust imprisonment, or prison rape and murder, or the modern day oubliettes like ADX), and I don’t remember making a conscious choice to do so.

    1. What I hope we’re trying to achieve is stopping them doing it again.
      Setting an example to perhaps dissuade imitation.
      Protecting those they’d butcher or blow to bits. If this means those who butchered, or blew to bits, other humans for fun, find themselves less than pleasantly accommodated (because they had to be sick to do what they did in the first place) I think I might be okay with that.

  3. Whenever I read about the severely mentally ill (or developmentally disabled) being warehoused in places like this, the first word that comes to mind is “Willowbrook.”

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