For Worst Inmates, 'Supermax' Hard Time

Posted: July 25, 1994

CAMP HILL, Pa. — Joseph Taylor considers himself a man who stands up for his rights and those of his fellow prisoners. Prison officials consider him an incorrigibly hostile inmate.

Because of his refusal to follow orders and his alleged assaults on guards, Taylor spent seven years in solitary confinement at the state penitentiary at Huntingdon.

Two years ago, he was moved to an even more restrictive home.

Taylor, 39, who is serving a life sentence for murder, became one of the first residents of Pennsylvania's new Special Management Unit (SMU) in the state prison here. The unit represents the state's first foray into the growing national trend of "supermax" confinement.

Supermax is the hardest of hard time. Unlike prisoners in regular cellblocks, Taylor and the other 80 supermax inmates remain locked in a cell all day, except for an hour of solitary exercise in a caged-in pen. They cannot participate in activities such as work, classes, group counseling, inmate organizations, sports or religious services.

They are handcuffed and shackled when leaving their cells. They are permitted fewer possessions than inmates in solitary confinement.

Though controversial, supermax units have been established in 33 states since the late 1980s, according to the Washington-based National Prison Project. In Pennsylvania, a second SMU for 96 inmates designated as chronic troublemakers will open this fall in a new state prison in Greene County.

Prison officials contend that these highly restrictive units are needed to isolate the "worst of the worst" inmates in their systems - not necessarily those who committed the most serious crimes but those who are violent, disruptive or predatory.

"Our primary purpose is to separate the most dangerous and violent inmates

from other inmates and staff for everybody's safety," said James Beard, superintendent of the Camp Hill prison who headed the committee that designed the SMU.

"Our second purpose is to persuade those inmates to improve their behavior so they can be returned safely back into the general (prison) population or to the streets if they've completed their sentences."

Critics call supermax units high-tech dungeons. They contend that not all inmates sent into such units belong there and that antisocial criminals cannot be socialized by prolonged isolation and idleness.

"They may be useful for prison administrators, but they are terrible social policy," said Stuart Grassian, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has examined inmates in supermax units in California, Massachusetts and New York.

"These units teach nothing about normal social interaction. There are no resources that are directed toward making people less violent except threats and fear. Many of these inmates have limited sentences, and when they get out, they will be as violent and crazy as they can be."

Critics contend that prison systems could better curb violence by reducing prison populations and creating more activities for inmates instead of building more and bigger disciplinary units that ultimately produce more anger.

The decision to create a supermax unit in Pennsylvania came after the 1989 riot at the Camp Hill prison, Beard said. The riot convinced prison officials there was a need for a way to handle the most disruptive inmates.

James Auxer, the director of the Camp Hill unit, said supermax inmates need to be separated from others. Some have committed at least one serious act of violence while in prison, he said. Others have histories of aggressive behavior and have spent at least a year locked up in disciplinary units around the state.

"Many men in prison don't deal that well with authority figures, but most of them figure it out well enough to get by," Auxer said. "The guys in here, a lot don't have social skills. They don't have impulse control. They think being loud and aggressive or constantly argumentative is how you get what you want."

The SMU program attempts to change behavior by providing incentives for those who show they can follow regulations, Beard and Auxer said.

Supermax inmates generally come in at Level 5 - the most restrictive - where they are permitted few visits, phone calls, cigarettes, books or personal items. Each successively lower level permits a few more of each. By Level 2, an inmate can work cleaning the cellblock for prison wages, go to a larger exercise cage with two other inmates and buy a TV for his cell. Level 1 inmates return to the general prison population but are closely monitored.

An inmate's progress depends on his attitude and cooperation with the staff. Beard and Auxer deny that supermax confinement means total isolation for inmates. They argue the inmates have more interaction with staff at Camp Hill than they would in an individual prison's disciplinary unit.

"The officers check on them frequently," Auxer said. "They bring their food and mail. They light their cigarettes. They take them to exercise or to the shower or to the visiting area."

The unit's two counselors visit each inmate once a week and talk to them about their progress. Refusing to obey the rules can send an inmate back to Level 5 to start over. It is up to the inmate to choose whether he wants to shape up and go back to a regular cellblock or not, Auxer said.

Psychiatrist Grassian believes some inmates aren't capable of making that choice. He said he has found that supermax prisoners in other states often have mental or emotional problems.

"Many of the people who end up in these units are not the hard, disciplined, ruthless, incorrigible prisoners - the James Cagneys of the prison system - but are the wretched of the earth," he said. "Despite a clear mandate that they are going to be punished if they act out, they can't help it because they're so out of control internally."

Isolating them in cells without meaningful activity causes further mental breakdown, he said.

Beard, who has a doctorate in psychology, said the Pennsylvania prison system screens out the mentally ill. "I'm not saying we don't have some people in the unit who have mental health histories, but we have determined that these individuals essentially have a behavior problem, not a mental health problem," he said.

Grassian questions this. "They may screen out the obvious schizophrenics and psychotics, but what happens is, when a person enters prison, the overwhelming tendency is to label a troublesome behavior as manipulative or malingering and to respond to it with punishment," he said.

Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said there is another type of inmate who often winds up in restrictive units - "people who perceive the system as an enemy. Anything the system tries to do with them, they resist." He believes that "those people's behavior won't be altered in a positive way by giving them more to fight against."

In interviews, three of the Camp Hill unit's inmates contended that there is no rehabilitative program, just punishment.

Joseph Taylor and Dennis McKeithan said they were being punished for standing up for prisoners' rights by filing lawsuits, going on hunger strikes and writing about or testifying against prison conditions.

McKeithan, who is serving a 55- to 110-year sentence for armed robbery, called supermax units "human waste camps" and "political concentration camps for jailhouse lawyers and African American males who refuse to suffer in silence." The cells are cold year-round, he said. The night lights are so bright it's hard to sleep. Guards mace, stun and beat inmates they dislike, he charged.

Beard and Auxer said none of that was accurate. Though some cells at the end of the unit do get chilly in the winter, they're not that cold nor are the

lights that bright, they said. Guards sometimes use a mace-like substance and a shield with an electrical charge, they said, but only when the inmate refuses to come out of his cell or fights.

McKeithan came to the unit in November 1992, accused of hitting a nurse at the Huntingdon prison. He was acquitted of assault, but prison officials were convinced he had hit the nurse, according to Beard.

Taylor denies the accusation that he assaulted the guards at Huntingdon; he says they beat him, then wrote him up for it.

"I challenge the system," he said when asked why he was placed and remains in supermax. "Like they are supposed to give us free legal packs (paper for legal work). They were charging guys. I showed them the regulation, and they had to give it to us."

On another occasion, he said, he refused to come out of his cell while on a hunger strike. Prison officials wanted to take him to the infirmary to be force-fed. He said he knew prison officials would get a court order, but he refused to come out until they produced it. To get him out, he said, guards maced him.

All told, Taylor has spent nine years in isolation. Asked how it has affected him, he said, "My attention span is short. Sometimes I can't hold onto my thoughts. I'm hypersensitive. Like today they beat me out of my pork tray. I'm supposed to get pork. But I kept my cool. I think they were testing me so they could deny me this interview."

Why doesn't he just go along in order to get out? Taylor reacted as if stung and shook his head. "It's just not in me. I couldn't live with myself. Like another guy was telling me, 'You're not a quitter.' "

Jason Marshall, 22, said his difficulty dealing with the disciplinary unit at Cresson state prison led to his being sent to the Camp Hill unit.

Marshall, who is serving a 2- to 10-year sentence for drug possession, said at Cresson he had been placed in restrictive housing after a fight with another inmate. "I tried to commit suicide," he said. "I set my cell on fire and covered the vents so the alarm wouldn't go off. It was stress. It bothered me to be confined all day."

Marshall said it's not difficult for an inmate to gain a reputation as a bad actor if he gets angry. "I must've got 100 misconducts. They had me down as a hostile, aggressive guy. Maybe I was some, but not to the extent they said."

Marshall, who said he has spent time in mental wards, has seen a psychologist once in his six months in the supermax unit and a counselor once a week, he said. He said he's not open to their counseling, anyway. "You can't get personal or you might say something that would have an adverse effect on whether you move up to the next phase or not."

Thus far, Camp Hill's SMU has had successes and failures, Beard and Auxer said. During the unit's first 18 months, 19 of its 43 inmates made it through the system and were placed back in a regular cellblock. Three of those, however, have since returned to the unit. Four inmates assigned to the unit have never progressed beyond the most restrictive level.

Prison officials don't know what to do with those inmates who don't respond to the supermax system. Auxer said that inmates stuck on the most restrictive level would have been in some prison's disciplinary unit, anyway, if they weren't in his.

He said that two or three of them will "max out" - complete their maximum sentences and be released from prison - within the next year. "They've been horrible the whole time they were here," he said.

What will they be like on the streets? he was asked.

"What do you think?" he responded.

For the successes, Beard pointed to two inmates with bad prison records who moved through the phases and now are in Camp Hill's general prison population. One, James McWhinnery, works on the prison grounds outside the fence and hopes to be paroled soon.

"My personal opinion is, you can go through there (the SMU( but you have to swallow your pride," he said. "You have to be a yes man. It disrespects any intelligence you have."

McWhinnery, 41, in prison for burglary and parole violations, said he stabbed two inmates in the Huntingdon prison and wound up spending three years in its disciplinary unit. There, he said, "I got older and I wised up. I don't think I needed the SMU except that it did get me out of the hole."

In McWhinnery's view, the SMU is an "opportunity" for guys like him but a ''deeper hole" for others. "It isn't a program; it's a test to see how much you can put up with. If you can put up with the aggravation, you must really want to go back into population."

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