The Growth of Administrative Segregation Units in Prison

adx thomsonWith the announcement of ADX Thomson, a new federal Supermax prison opening within the next two years, the Bureau of Prisons will boast two ultra-secure Supermax facilities. These units often referred to as “Little Guantanamo’s” have grown popular with prison officials in recent years and are referred to by several different acronyms- ADX, SMU, CMU- but in essence, they are the same as regular SHU’s or isolation units, except they specialize in indefinite segregation.

SMU’s or Special Management Units, such as those found at USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania and USP Atlanta in Georgia, keep prisoners locked down for 24 hours a day, seven days a week in two man cells. Not the most accommodating conditions, but conditions prisoners are forced to endure. Living with another prisoner indefinitely, in a 6 by 9 foot cell is extremely uncomfortable but that’s not the worst of it. “It’s like being in a tunnel for years, where your radio and communication frequency has gone out,” a prisoner tells us. “Where you can’t reach out to anyone and it seems no one can reach you, but you’ve got to navigate through the darkness, with hopes that there is really a light at the end of the tunnel.” ADX and SMU classified inmates fill these Supermax and control units. They have little or no chance to be transferred to a lower security or less restrictive prison. Once classified by the BOP in this manner they have to complete the step down programs which can take a minimum of 12 to 24 months, but often turn into four to five years or longer.

It’s a similar situation to what is going on at Pelican Bay, California’s Supermax, where the gang validation process, in which prison investigators determine whether or not prisoners are members of certain gangs and segregate them indefinitely in SHU, has been widely criticized. “The only way you get out of Pelican Bay it to debrief, basically renounce membership in your gang and give up any and all info you have on them to prison staff,” the prisoner says. “That is a death sentence where I am from, so the homies in Cali just chill in lockdown, sometimes for decades. They are doing the same thing in the feds now.”

And the feds have taken it one step further by opening up experimental segregation units they call CMU’s, Communication Management Units at USP Terre Haute in Indiana, USP Allenwood in Pennsylvania and at USP Marion in Illinois. CMU’s are effectively political prisons designed to silence the voices of prisoners whose beliefs or messages the government doesn’t like. Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist who served time in a CMU told us, “CMU prisoners were there because of their religion or in retaliation for their speech, political views or perspectives not shared by the Department of Justice. I was sent to the CMU on the basis of speech that the BOP disagrees with. The units have become where the BOP can dump prisoners they have issues with or whose political views they don’t like.”

McGowan, who completed his sentence at a halfway house in New York, was retaliated against and returned to prison for publishing a blog about being retaliated against for speaking out in prison. His story has been well publicized, but many like his aren’t and never will be. Prisoners are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and retaliation for filing frequent litigation or speaking out against their keepers. The CMU’s specialize in prison mail censorship and holding prisoners limbo incommunicado. Prisoners like McGowan endure unspeakable punishments without the benefit of due process in any court of law. Staff being deliberately indifferent to their complaints.

A lot of prisoners in these control units are subject to SAM’s, Special Administrative Measures, where prisoners are prohibited from receiving certain publications, books or Internet generated materials. There is even a policy against allowing prisoner’s to read their name, or any other prisoner’s name in print. SAM’s can be used to house prisoners in restricted confinement like those above, and to curtail or eliminate their ability to communicate with others- including the public, media, other prisoners and family members. And with a lack of any meaningful way to step down from the units the CMU’s are extremely difficult to transfer out of.

“The psychological abuse administered by staff can be a key mind controlling factor,” the prisoner says. “The subtle things like not taking you out to rec, not delivering mail, not giving you a shower. It’s the little things they do, to break the routine that can send you over the edge.” Forms of long term confinement have been denounced by human and prisoner rights groups as an inhumane and ineffective form of punishment. But the brutal form of isolations still exists and is something many prisoners have to deal with on a daily basis. Prisoners like Daniel McGowan and numerous other nameless faces, wearing orange jumpsuits and referred to by number instead of a name. It’s an Orwellian world for them, one that cannot be understood or comprehended until you experience it firsthand.