Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times had a story on the “Supermax” prison where Zacharias Moussaoui will live for the rest of his days. (That’s using the word “live” rather loosely.)
Some thoughts, in no particular order:
1. Most states with big prison systems have a Supermax prison, or a Supermax unit inside a maximum-security prison. The Boston Globe Magazine had a sketch of Massachusetts’s notorious DDU two years ago.
2. Some of those state units are even worse than the Federal unit described in the L.A. Times article. When some of my colleagues studied the DDU more than a decade ago, the lights in the cells stayed on 24 hours a day.
3. Most of the prisoners in the Federal Supermax unit are lifers. But that’s not true at the state level. It’s possible to finish your sentence inside the Massachusetts DDU and be released directly from 23-hour-a-day lockdown to the street. Does that make you feel safe? Me neither.
4. There are some prisoners who simply can’t be controlled, even in an ordinary maximum-security prison: they attack other prisoners and guards. There’s a need for someplace to confine them where they can’t hurt other people. There’s also a need for something worse than a maximum-security cellblock to hold out as a threat to manage the rest of the maximum-security population.
5. It’s possible to do both jobs — secure confinement and deterrence — without the horrors of the Supermax model: in particular, without permanent solitary confinement.
6. Some of the people confined in Supermax facilities are there not for acting out in prison but because their underlying offenses were so terrible. I don’t see the justification for that.
7. Perhaps Supermax facilities weren’t deliberately designed to drive inmates crazy. But it’s now obvious that they do.
8. What goes on in those facilities is in many ways worse than ordinary physical torture. It lacks even the bad excuse of possibly securing operationally valuable information.
9. The technical term for this sort of activity in international law is “crimes against humanity.” The Constitution calls it “cruel and unusual punishment,” though the courts have held otherwise.
10. The government sought the death penalty as the most severe punishment available. The Moussaoui jury thought it was being merciful by sparing Moussaoui the death penalty. Some of the 9-11 family members seem to agree. I don’t.
11. You might hope that the right-wing bloggers who claimed that what went on at Abu Ghraib wasn’t any worse than what goes on in our domestic prisons would be concerned about cleaning up what goes on in our domestic prisons. But you might as well hope for a pony while you’re at it. [Here’s a disgusting little item from the Providence Journal (reg. req.) on the gross (and I do mean gross) maltreatment of minimum-security prisoners in Rhode Island. Hat tip: Dare Generation.]
12. And yes, before Glenn Reynolds reminds me of it, let me admit up front that this isn’t a winning issue politically. But that says something bad about the voters and the political process, not something good about disgusting cruelty and the politicians who order it, or acquiesce in it, just to win votes. I don’t want my candidates to campaign on this sort of issue; I want them to win elections by campaigning on issues voters care about, and then to govern well enough to be able to get away with doing the right thing when it isn’t popular.