Is running a Supermax prison a crime against humanity?

Zacharias Moussaoui has been sentenced to a fate worse than death.

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 &#8212 secure confinement and deterrence &#8212 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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Is running a Supermax prison a crime against humanity?”

  1. Amen. Abu Ghraib was notable because it got attention. Our treatement of prisoners says something very, very disturbing about U.S. society. That many of the armchair-torturer crowd seem to simply want to keep it quiet and out of sight demonstrates that they are aware of their own sickness.
    In a political argument about the proper extent of retributive punishment (the actual topic was prison rape), I asked a defender of inhumanity, "what would Jesus do?" While it didn't make a friend, the provoked rage was rather gratifying, in a sad way.

  2. It was known back as far as the 1600's that solitary drove inmates mad. Read the historical notes to George Zebrowski's _Brute Orbits_.

  3. If you were to take Moussaoui out of permanent isolation lockup, I suspect very strongly that he would be spending a great deal of time with his head down a toilet, or removing home-made weapons from his person. Given the fact that it is Moussaoui, I honestly can't say that the prospect of this would keep me awake at night. But I can hardly see how depriving him of these experiences constitures a crime against humanity.

  4. Of course it's possible to keep people physically separated from one another without cutting them off from all human contact: via closed-circuit TV, for example.

  5. I'm still hoping that a majority would recoil from this prison set up if only the cruelty could be shown clearly and powerfully on TeeVee or film.

  6. Part of the problem with trying to depict the cruelty on TV or in a movie (and this may very well be your point) is that the thing which drives you crazy is the long term isolation and boredom. That isn't engagingly depictable in a 90 or 120 minute format.

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