Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons

“…The overriding rationale for supermax confinement is to impose order  and maintain safety in the prison environment.  The unmitigated suffering caused by supermax confinement, however, cannot be justified by the argument that it is an effective means to deal with difficult prisoners. The issue, we believe, is not whether supermax achieves its purposes or is effective at controlling and punishing unruly inmates.
Instead, the question is whether the vast archipelago of American supermax facilities, in which some prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely for years, should be tolerated as consistent with fundamental principles of justice. Even prisoners who have committed horrific crimes and atrocities possess basic rights to humane treatment under national and international law. Although the Constitution “does not mandate comfortable prisons,” it does require humane prisons that comport with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against punishments that are “incompatible with ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” or which “involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” More recently, the Supreme Court stated that “[p]risoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Supermax confinement as extensively implemented in the United States falls short of this standard and must be substantially reformed.”

—-The New York City Bar in its just-released report on “supermax” prisons in the United States.  The report declares supermax imprisonment, which currently holds 80,000 prisoners, to be the equivilent of torture and a violation of international human rights standards.

The report is harrowing, horrifying, and a source of shame for all Americans. The lack of concern by the public and its elected representatives in maintaining humane conditions in our prisons is understandable but inexcusable nonetheless. The New York City Bar has performed  a great service by issuing the report; it is up to us to insist that it is acted upon without delay. The United States of America should not be operating dungeons.

You can, and must, read it here.

15 thoughts on “Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons

  1. This is especially noteworthy because such criticism is so rare. These conditions have been known for a long time, there have been TV documentaries about it, but little call for change. Why is it so hard to talk about the need to change the criminal justice system to make it better? It isn’t like anyone thinks it’s perfect.

  2. In the field of Entertainment, if you want to see what solitary confinement can do to an individual very quickly, watch “Take the Money and Run”. Some of these people can’t even last 48 hours. Could you imagine the effect of years on an individual?

  3. It would be one thing to lock people up in solitary for years on end if you provided some from of other entertainment, whether it be books, films or television, or even turned the lights off at some point during the day and gave them a window. But in most of these places, you are limited to one or two books , no televisio,n and are prohibited from working out in your cell, have no window and the lights are on 24/7. Plus these places are not just for lifers. They lock people up in these places and then someday let them out without any sort of rehabilitation.

  4. I know I’m going to take some flack for this, but here goes: I disagree.

    As I’ve written before, my father was a career employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, so thanks to him I know a good bit more than most about what goes on inside a prison, including the level-5 (highest) security penitentiaries. I’ve been inside an L5 myself once to apply and interview for a summer internship during college.

    My biggest disappointment with this report is how it just glosses over the murders of Correctional Officers Merle Clutts and Robert Hoffman. Those brave men did not deserve to die, and “supermax” prisons are a direct consequence of the need to keep prison employees and other inmates safe from the most violent and/or psychotic inmates.

    (Side note: Why are inmates denied books? Because inmates have fashioned lethal crossbows using paper and elastic from their underwear.)

    My second biggest disappointment with this report is in how it contains 100% criticism with 0% suggestions for how to make it better while maintaining order and keeping employees and other inmates of the prison safe. The fundamental problem is: how do you punish an inmate for violent behavior inside a prison when that very inmate is already receiving the harshest punishment the penal system hands down? Answer THAT question, and we can start having a serious discussion of prison reform.


  5. RE: Bad Lawyer

    FCI Morgantown (WV) was one of the places where my father worked, as well as one of my brothers for a summer internship. It is indeed a Level 1 facility which insiders refer to as a “camp”.

    Did you know…
    – that FCI Morgantown has an indoor, heated, Olympic-sized swimming pool? The facility was originally built as a youth center, so it has quite a few recreational facilities. (I got to swim in it myself once during an open house night where the facilities were opened to employees and their guests.)
    – that the institution doesn’t even have a fence around it? There’s a three-foot high wooden, decorative fence at the entrance–that’s it.
    – that there’s a major mall only a half a mile away? It was a common practice to grant inmate furloughs to the Mountaineer Mall. It may still be, but I can’t say for certain.
    – that it achieved a certain fame in the 80’s for being the first men’s prisons with a woman warden? There was a 60-Minutes segment. (My dad worked there at the time and speaks highly of her.)

    So pa-lease. If anyone intends to paint a picture of federal prisons as hell-holes, . . . Morgantown?!? REALLY?!?


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