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The only time I’ve ever testified before a state investigative commission was after I wrote a series of articles on the conditions at Pelican Bay, a super-maximum security prison in Northern California. I told the commission about the letters I’d received from prisoners and a prisoners’ rights group, as well as psychiatrists’ reports. Afterward, a guard at Pelican Bay, who had also been a witness, confronted me in the corridor. “I sure hope I get you in there one day,” he said furiously. And I felt the sincerity of his desire. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson later appointed a master to supervise reforms at Pelican Bay. In the case of Madrid v. Gomez (1995), Henderson had found that prolonged confinement at the prison “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.” He added that putting psychologically vulnerable or actually mentally ill prisoners there “is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.” My sources inside the prison and at an outside watchdog group tell me that Pelican Bay hasn’t changed much. But now, there’s another lawsuit against another super-max prison. And it presents such an abundance of specific evidence of constitutional violations that it may finally bring national attention to the plight of these most abandoned of all federal and state prisoners. The case of Austin v. Wilkinson is being brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights as a class action on behalf of 21 named inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. The case, which was filed Jan. 9, 2001, in the U.S. District Court in Cleveland, alleges cruel and unusual punishment. At this “correctional” institution — to use a term that supposedly once characterized American prisons — the inmates are confined, alone, in 7-by-14 foot cells. The cells are illuminated 24 hours a day, and an inmate who tries to shade the lights is punished. At first, inmates were able to communicate with each other through a narrow slit at the bottom of the steel cell doors. But late last year, metal strips were affixed to the slits, cutting off any contact. Whenever an inmate leaves his cellblock, he is strip-searched and placed in restraints. When an outsider comes to visit him, the prisoner must remain shackled in a small room behind heavy glass. One restraint about which the inmates often complain is called the “black box.” As described by the ACLU, “it rigidly locks the wrists of the inmate at his waist,” and then a chain is drawn tight around the prisoner’s waist, cutting off his breath. The quality of the medical and mental health care provided the prisoners is one of the lawsuit’s major concerns. According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s standards of “High Maximum Security Confinement”: “Inmates who are seriously mentally ill or seriously physically ill will not be placed at the Ohio State Penitentiary. No inmate shall be assigned to the Ohio State Penitentiary unless the inmate has been screened and evaluated for mental illness and found not to be seriously mentally ill.” Is that standard being met? Since April 1998, when the super-max was opened, three prisoners have killed themselves and many more have tried. Consider the case of August Cassano, who had been on death row at another prison before being transferred to the super-max for incorrigible bad behavior. Cassano has a long history of serious mental illness, including (the lawsuit contends) numerous suicide attempts. Yet during his time at the super-max, he was not listed in the prison’s mental health caseload. In September 2000, Cassano tried to kill himself by cutting the artery in his arm with broken glass from a television set he had smashed. He was returned to his former prison to stay until his execution. But fearing that he would be sent back to the super-max, Cassano again tried to kill himself, this time by biting the artery and vein in one arm. He bled profusely, but survived. The ACLU says that inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary who ask for medical or psychological care “are compelled to explain their requests while shouting through their cell doors.” And “during visits with religious counselors and mental health professionals, inmates are chained either to the floor or a metal pole in a locked room.” In an “Internal Complaint Resolution” form filled out by one prisoner, the inmate says that every time he has asked to see a mental health counselor, he’s been told that nothing is wrong with him. The inmate doesn’t agree: “I’ve had nine suicide attempts. I cut my finger off and sent it to the President. I have 25 years in prison. Stress and family problems are making me depressed. I think of death all the time. I’d like to be put on medication!!!” Even more ordinary medical care can be dangerously inadequate. The ACLU alleges that one inmate “was denied dental care so long that he resorted to extracting his own infected tooth.” Although this super-max — like others around the country — is supposed to house only the most dangerous prisoners, those too violent to be held anywhere else, the ACLU maintains that “the Ohio State Penitentiary has in fact become home to inmates transferred there for slight infractions, without even the most minimal regard for due process of law. In fact, the procedures surrounding transfer are so vague as to be arbitrary, and are rife with abuse. Once prisoners are transferred to OSP, the procedures for transferring them back out, into the general prison population, are equally arbitrary.” ‘WAREHOUSE OF SOULS’ After a prisoner hung himself in July 1999, the warden’s assistant wrote to Alice and Staughton Lynd, who have tracked complaints of abuse at the prison since it opened. The Lynds, who are of counsel in this case, have a long history of commitment to civil liberties, and Staughton became almost a legendary figure during the anti-war movement. Alice has corresponded with more than 250 current and former inmates at the super-max, and is still in touch with some 200 of them. The warden’s assistant asked the Lynds what the Ohio State Penitentiary could do “to give the prisoners more of a sense that life was worth living.” This class action is the answer. I’ve read many of the letters that the prisoners wrote to Alice Lynd. They’re filled with a sense of hopelessness, desperation, and despair. As one prisoner puts it: “This is a warehouse of human souls. My hatred’s like a black, festering pool.” “What is so moving,” Alice told me, “is the way they look out for each other.” For instance, a member of a white-supremacy gang wrote her to complain bitterly about what had been done to a black Muslim prisoner in the next cell during a so-called cell extraction. (A SWAT team of guards moves in with whatever means and weapons are necessary to drag obdurate prisoners out of their cells.) The prisoners’ letters also sound a note of warning. “Ms. Lynd,” writes one inmate, “when I’m released, it’s like setting a hurt animal free that’s in need of medical attention, also an animal that has been abused and dehumanized. I’m very scared on this matter … . These people are making psycopaths! [sic] … What effects [sic] us in here effects you in society, because one day we will be a part of some community.” IT’S A SYSTEM Horrendous prison conditions are, sadly, nothing new in American life. The prototype of the modern super-max was established at Auburn, N.Y., in the early 19th century. As described in “Prisoners’ Rights: The Supreme Court and Evolving Standards of Decency” (Greenwood Press), by John Fliter, a professor at Kansas State University, the Auburn system consisted of “the separation of inmates into small cells at night, and strictly enforced silence at all times. Discipline was enforced by such devices as the lockstep and … the whipping of inmates. The Auburn system became the model for over 30 state prisons built between 1825 and 1869.” A similar discipline was adopted at the Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. During an American trip, Charles Dickens stopped by and described what he saw: “The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. Every cell has double doors, the outer one of sturdy oak, the other of grated iron, wherein there is a trap through which [the prisoner's] food is handed. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” And then Dickens noted the hard and still true fact that few people seem to care how badly prisoners are treated. The harsh punishment, wrote Dickens, “extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore, I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” 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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