Prison myth No. 1: 'Prisoners want to go in to solitary confinement'

By Stan Moody | Jan 09, 2010

It is not news that public opinion is stacked against those who have been convicted and incarcerated for a crime -- any crime. Check the Internet blogs on notorious cases in Maine, and you will see a marked trend toward "lock him up and throw away the key."

Never do you read, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Prisons are, very simply, designed to keep the presumed incorrigible out of contact with the public in the interest of protecting both.

In a world of law-and-order politicians and self-righteous citizens, the reality is one of spiraling costs and the expectation that when prisoners come out, they will be worse than when they went in.

Do the math. The United States has more prisoners than China and enjoys a 65 percent rate of return (broadly referred to as "recidivism") on its investment. What that means in Maine, the state with the lowest incarceration rate, is that within eight years, it will cost every Maine family around $2,000 a year to house the state's inmate population.

The cost of housing our social-service failures is fast outpacing the annual cost of our successes in education and social services.

It's a lose/lose proposition.

Meanwhile, prisons have become very efficient campuses for handling convicts. More than half the U.S. prisons in use today have been built over the last 25 years. These facilities are designed to process people in and out of highly controlled work, cafeteria and recreational environments with an absolute minimum of management skill or ingenuity.

They are sterile, military-type environments that require little of staff, expect little of inmates beyond obedience, and demoralize both.

They say that it all went downhill when Maine tore down the old prison in Thomaston for the efficient facility in Warren.

There's a reason for that, I think. While we built a sparkling new prison, shined and spit-polished and administered to receive the coveted and expensive American Corrections Association accreditation, we brought in the same old team from top to bottom to run it.

While the inmates eventually adapted, the old guard remained committed to a 19th-century penal model.

There are several myths as to why things don't change in the prison culture in Maine, none of which has much merit. I will be exploring those myths over the next several weeks, but the first one I want to address is the myth that insists that solitary confinement is OK because inmates like it. You will hear that myth being propagated by corrections officials and legislators who, ironically, go into spasms of depression when faced with any kind of isolation.

Take the attention away from a politician, and s/he will inevitably do something outrageous to get it back.

Some accuse me of that malady, and I have to admit there is enough truth in that accusation to cause me to constantly examine my motives and agendas when I become engaged in a crusade.

Solitary confinement is as close to a 19th-century Charles Dickens novel as you can get. Maine State Prison was built only 34 years after the Quakers built the nation's first prison, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in 1790. In 1829, the Quakers and the Anglicans expanded on the Walnut Street experiment and built the Eastern State Penitentiary, which like Walnut Street, was a solitary confinement prison operating under the theory that isolation and solitude inspire repentance.

Eastern State closed in 1971 as a failed prison model.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Eastern State Penitentiary. He later wrote, "I believe it to be cruel and wrong. I hold this daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Eventually, high-tech, maximum-security prisons like the one in Warren became the option of choice for politicians and correction officials needing to keep inmates off the front page of the newspapers and under control. They were the modern means of satisfying the three-monkey defense -- "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

The public could now rest in its pride of a modern facility and in its desire for ignorance of its inner workings. Surrounded by 1,100 acres of farmland, Maine State Prison was off anybody's radar -- that is, until the recent homicide/neglect of convicted sex offender Sheldon Weinstein.

On my first trip as a chaplain through the Special Management Unit, the modern term for solitary confinement, I was surprised to find inmates like Cal, Nick, Art, Troy, Mike, Ron, Dan, Jesse and many, many others who were working on breaking the record for the most months in solitary.

One of them reached 20 months, as I recall. Somebody in management failed to get the message from the 1960s that isolation tends to make people crazy -- not better.

It is very common when an inmate is within months of being released to let him serve out his last stretch in solitary and then release him to the streets.

One classic case was Jonathan Dix, a severely depressed black inmate who went from months in SMU to Lewiston and was dead of an overdose within two weeks. I pleaded with Jonathan to head straight to his family in Brockton, Mass., several of whom would have come to the prison to pick him up.

What I saw in SMU were broken people who had lost all sense of dignity and self-respect, which led them to act out and earn more "high risk" time in solitary.

In January 1998, CNN Correspondent Peg Tyre quoted David Levin of Prisoners Legal Services, who called excessive solitary confinement "death by incarceration." She interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Henry Weinstein (unrelated to inmate Sheldon Weinstein who died in Maine's SMU on April 24, 2009).

Dr. Weinstein described the symptoms of prisoners in solitary as ranging "... from memory loss to severe anxiety to hallucinations to delusions and, under the severest cases of sensory deprivation, people go crazy."

Are there some prisoners who find solitary appealing at some level? Believe it or not, it can get quite chaotic in general population at times, and there are some who find solitary useful for "getting their heads straight." That may work for one to two weeks, but 20 months? What you are in danger of producing in 20 months is a person who has nothing to lose, a situation that raises substantially the threat to corrections officers.

Anyone working in corrections or involved in criminal legislation who justifies a 19th-century penal system on the grounds that "prisoners want to go into solitary confinement" is grossly out of touch with human nature and has, by that statement, disqualified himself.

The myth that prisoners like solitary confinement inspires backroom brutality, encourages laziness and greases the revolving door: "He'll be back!"

Stan Moody, former state representative and chaplain at the Maine State Prison, is the author of "Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship" and "McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry." He currently serves as pastor at the Meeting House Church in Manchester. His Web site is stanmoody.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Phil Edwards | Jan 09, 2010 14:52

Stan, as to your theory of Myth #1, did you mention that some prisoners go to seg as a sort of self-induced protective custody?: drug deal gone sour, he may learn he is the target of a planned  'hit', he may owe money,  he may want to hide out due to his offense, he may have racked up disciplinary time due to his own actions, or simply be scared to death? Or he may have been a participant in an assault on another prisoner or staff. When I worked at MSP prisoners in the Close Unit, who had been recommended for a transfer to the Medium Unit, would intentionally act up and go to seg, expecting to lose their 'medium, classification and stay in Close.

MSP's staff is professional. They keep them inside the fence so people like you can sleep peacefully at night outside the fence.

 



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