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64 Fed. Probation 33 (2000)
Who Lives in Super-Maximum Custody - A Washington State Study

handle is hein.journals/fedpro64 and id is 115 raw text is: December 2000

C soy  A Wahngo  Stt  Sd

David Lovell, University of Washington
Kristin Cloyes, University of Washington
David Allen, University of Washington
Lorna Rhodes, University of Washington

THE GROWTH OF super-maximum
facilities in the United States can be traced to
the experience of the Marion Federal Peni-
tentiary in the early 1980s, when a series of
assaults and murders led authorities to insti-
tute a lockdown regime characterized by
single-cell housing, an absence of congregate
activity, confinement for 23 hours per day,
restrictions on commissary and other ameni-
ties, and the use of handcuffs and leg restraints
when inmates are escorted to enclosed exer-
cise areas, showers, or no-contact visits. These
restrictions dramatically reduced the inci-
dence of violence at Marion. With some lo-
cal variations, they have been replicated in the
new or retrofitted units that, as of 1995, had
been established in 36 states. The pervasive-
ness of control in such units is established not
only by security protocols, which are designed
to minimize opportunities for assault, but by
architectural and surveillance technologies
that permit constant monitoring of what in-
mates are doing in their cells.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the rapid
growth in prison populations since the 1980s
has been accompanied by proliferating super-
maximum facilities within prison systems, for
both trends express the logic of incapacita-
tion: To make the community safer, we lock
away the dangerous and predatory in a place
where they cannot harm us. Ward and
Carlson describe the corresponding policy in
prison management as consolidation-the
intentional concentration of the most aggres-
sive, escape-prone, and disruptive prisoners

in a single facility where the level of security
and the overall regime is specifically designed
to accommodate them. The authors go on
to comment that the consolidation strategy
can positively impact the quality and life of
other prisons in the system.1
Though the logic of incapacitation is intu-
itively appealing, the policy raises troubling
issues. Perhaps the most salient problem from
a prison management perspective is the
difficulty of releasing an inmate who has been
deemed dangerous back into a general popu-
lation setting. If risks are avoided by transfer-
ring an inmate to an IMU, they are incurred
anew when he is returned: the restrictions that
prevent him from harming others while in soli-
tary confinement also prevent his keepers from
assessing confidently what he would do when
restrictions are lifted. This concern is exacer-
bated by the possibility that the subject will
have been embittered or debilitated by the ex-
perience, and more prone to lash out once re-
leased. Thus, recidivism by those returned to
general population or the community, and fear
of releasing others, may create rising demand
for super-maximum capacity.
Not all super-maximum residents may raise
the tiger-by-the-tail problem, but then ques-
tions arise about whether all inmates in them are
there for good reason, and truly merit the degree
of restriction these facilities impose. Such con-
cerns are heightened by evidence that a dispro-
portionate number of super-maximum custody
prisoners have problems coping with prison due
to mental illness, brain damage, or other factors;

that needed treatment is not provided in such
settings; and that vulnerable inmates are further
damaged by sensory deprivation and other dis-
orienting features of the environment. Finally,
some studies of inmates in isolation indicate that
even those who start out healthy can become
withdrawn, incapable of initiating or governing
behavior, suicidal, or paranoid.2 Because of these
concerns, the use of super-maximum
confinement has given rise to litigation and has
attracted a determined group of critics.3
Because these issues hinge on differing
views of the purposes of corrections and the
rights of inmates, there will remain issues of
interpretation and grounds for disagreement
that cannot be resolved by purely empirical
methods. Defenders and critics of super-
maximum facilities may agree, however, that
it is important to devise methods of working
inmates out of isolation, reducing repeated
super-maximum placements, and preventing
long-term solitary confinement of those
whose ability to manage themselves is limited
by mental illness or brain damage. To that
end, systematic studies are needed of who lives
in super-maximum custody, how they got
there, and what effects it has on them.
To address the first of these questions-
who lives in super-maximum custody-we
conducted a study of all residents of Inten-
sive Management Units (IMUs) in Washing-
ton state prisons. We used the Department
of Corrections Offender-Based Tracking Sys-
tem (OBTS), the Department's electronic da-
tabase for managing the classification and

This work is sponsored by the University of Washington-Department of Corrections Mental Health collaboration and is supported by contract with
the Department of Corrections. The authors wish to thank officials and staff at our study sites for their cooperation with this research, and to
acknowledge the helpful comments of Hans Toch on earlier versions of this paper.

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