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Since the 1980s, at least 40 states have built super-maximum security prisons to house their “most dangerous” inmates. Human Rights Watch, in its 1997 report “Cold Storage,” documented the misery at these super-max prisons: Their common characteristics are extreme social isolation, reduced environmental stimulus, scant recreational, vocational or educational opportunities, and extraordinary levels of surveillance and control … . For years, except for the occasional touch of a guard’s hand as they are being handcuffed when they leave their cells, they have no physical contact with another human being. The prisoners lose hope. Some lose their minds. And the question must be asked: When does harsh treatment become simply torture? In Ohio, civil liberties advocates and prisoners are trying to improve conditions at the super-maxes. A class action, Austin v. Wilkinson — brought on behalf of 21 named prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary — is now before the U.S. District Court in Cleveland. Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, the suit alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the Eighth and 14th amendments and customary international human rights law. The complaint states, without hyperbole, that the prisoners are “forced to undergo conditions of incarceration that, taken singly and in totality, constitute cruel and unusual punishment … . Defendants are aware of but are indifferent to the serious consequences of long-term solitary confinement. Conditions are so stark in this institution that a significant percentage of the prisoners have attempted or committed suicide.” The inmates and their advocates have tried to talk to prison officials. “Numerous attempts have been made to request and demand of the Defendants that the conditions set forth herein be eliminated. In the course of making these requests and demands, Plaintiffs have exhausted all available administrative remedies.” The suit now asks the court to order a series of remedies to address problems ranging from arbitrary transfers to poor health care and lack of recreation to harsh treatment and retaliation by guards. SENT TO HELL One major flaw in the system involves the initial decision as to which inmates will be sent to a super-max. The suit says that prisoners are transferred to the Ohio State Penitentiary under vague and arbitrary procedures. To remedy this violation of “even minimal standards of due process,” prisoners in other institutions should henceforth “be informed of the reason for their transfer, and be given a meaningful hearing in which to clear themselves of the charges underlying that transfer.” The suit also asks that prisoners not be sent to the super-max for crimes of which they have not been found guilty in a court, but only by a prison board. In view of the fragmentary (to say the least) nature of medical and mental health care at the Ohio State Penitentiary — detailed in one of my recent columns — the suit asks that inmates with serious mental illnesses not be sent to the super-max and that inmates there with mental illnesses be transferred elsewhere before any treatment would be too late. As one prisoner writes, “It is not at all difficult to understand why these men are quietly losing their minds and committing suicide … . Hopefully I will fare better than those around me who are slowly sinking into psychosis.” Since the inmates are locked into 7-by-14 cells for 23 hours a day, the suit asks that they “be allowed access to some basic form of outdoor recreation.” As described by inmates, “[o]ur outdoor recreation — such as it is and when allowed — is restricted to an unheated cell with a 4-inch slit in the wall … . We walk around in a space that’s much smaller than the one we’re in the rest of the time … . There is no indoor recreation facility.” Many prisoners ask for something to do. “There is nothing to relieve your mind of being in that cell,” one writes. “There’s no gym, no weights, no bingo games, no chess or checkers, or card tournaments … . I can’t understand why a recreation worker is being paid.” The complaint speaks of “unnecessary and unduly harsh restraints” on the prisoners. In letters, inmates relate repeated uses of excessive force: “There are guards who will spray an inmate with mace for anything. I’ve even seen them mace an inmate while he had on handcuffs, with his hands behind his back. Inmates are being assaulted while shackled. They are running inmates’ heads into the walls while they’re cuffed and shackled.” And if the prisoners dare to complain about their treatment? Documents included with the suit tell of “retaliation for writing complaints [through official channels], receiving mail from attorneys, or even asking questions such as why they were being told to cuff up.” One form of retaliation is to assign an inmate to a cell where the one window faces a blank wall. Says one prisoner: “I have been trying to get away from this wall. It is driving me crazy, and I don’t know just how much longer I can hold on without losing it completely … . I really think they are going to leave me in this cell till I lose my mind.” Prisoners making formal complaints have also been denied meal trays and have had family pictures and hygiene items destroyed. They ask that “their personal property be respected, whether irreplaceable pictures of their loved ones, legal work, or items they have purchased from [the] commissary.” The lawsuit asks that a special master be appointed to oversee compliance with court-ordered remedies. A master should also look into a frequent charge by prisoners that “there is no pre-release program, no provision for extra phone calls to set up housing or employment for inmates being released from maximum security … so that they will have enough support to make a satisfactory transition more likely.” WRITTEN IN DESPAIR This documentation of prisoners’ complaints is the result of a letter sent to about 100 inmates by civil liberties advocate Alice Lynd, who is of counsel in the case. Alice and her husband, Staughton Lynd, have been tracking complaints of abuse since the Ohio super-max opened in 1998. The letter asked, “What could the Ohio State Penitentiary do to make you feel your life is more worth living?” Some 70 prisoners responded. One result of answering Alice Lynd’s letter was that for some inmates, life became even more difficult. She explains: “Because legal mail is personally delivered to inmates, staff are aware of who corresponds with me and Staughton Lynd. We have had numerous reports of comments, threats, and disparate treatment of inmates who are known to have sent us their complaints.” Yet some prisoners kept writing. One complains of “being handcuffed and held onto by two guards just to go to the shower. I’m so sick of guards grabbing onto me. I won’t even shower now. I’ll stay as clean as possible in the sink water. So I’m in my cell 24 hours, seven days a week. I haven’t had fresh air or sunshine in many months, and this is VERY depressing, to the point I myself have thought of suicide! And I consider myself a strong-minded guy.” And another: “They make us feel like less than a human being. They degrade us, take away our pride and break our spirits. They even take away our hope. What do we have left? Nothing … . Our family just can’t stand to see us suffer like this, so they stop coming to see us, or just give up on us. If something don’t change for the best in OSP soon, you will be seeing a lot more dead inmates, because who wants to live like this?” Since the Ohio super-max opened three years ago, there have been three suicides and many more attempts. In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens visited an earlier version of a super-max prison in Pennsylvania. Of the misery he saw at the Eastern Penitentiary, Dickens wrote: “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers … . From what I have seen written on their faces … I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has the right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immensely worse than any torture of the body.” Has anything changed? Nat Hentoff is a longtime columnist for the Village Voice , a syndicated columnist for United Media/NEA, and a columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine. He has written numerous books, including “Living the Bill of Rights” (1998) and “Speaking Freely” (1997).

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