Control Units

Illegal Torture Not Just for Guantánamo


In the mid-1980s, the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Prison Watch Project received a letter from Ojore Lutalo at Trenton State Prison. He wrote that he had been placed in a management control unit, which he described as a “prison within a prison.” Although he had been in and out of prison for years, he had never heard of such a unit, and he didn’t know why he was placed there or for how long. He wrote that he was being held in extended solitary confinement, allowed only one hour every other day for exercise.

One of the first control units was established in the late 1960s at San Quentin’s O wing. Another was established in 1972 at Marion Federal Penitentiary in the infamous H Unit, made up of cruel boxcar cells. Similar units were established in the 1970s in New Jersey and Massachusetts. By 1997, 45 states and the District of Columbia as well as the federal system were operating control units.

During the 1990s, a new generation of supermaximum security—or supermax—prisons began to crop up. These institutions were designed for the universal and permanent isolation of all their inhabitants. By 2002, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 20,000 prisoners, or nearly 2 percent of the U.S. prison population, were being held in long-term solitary confinement. AFSC estimates that figure is now up to 2.5 percent.

Sensory Assault and Isolation

From the beginning, control units have relied on sensory deprivation. Prisoners are confined in tiny cells the size of a parking space for 23 or 24 hours a day, often in what they describe as an “eerie silence.” In some cases, constant unpleasant noise or having the lights on 24 hours a day creates a different form of sensory assault.

Letters coming into Prison Watch tell of living in a cage the size of a small bathroom, with tiers of cages above, below, and on either side. Many have no cell windows. The cells are often soundproof, and there is little interaction with anyone other than staff.

Education or therapeutic programs are nonexistent; even exercise is solitary. When a prisoner leaves the cell, a strip search is conducted, often including a pointedly humiliating anal probe—even though the prisoner may have had no direct contact with another human being for months.

The decision to isolate the prisoner may be made without any formal proceedings, and the period of isolation most often has no defined endpoint, especially when isolation is imposed for “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” reasons. The newest supermax prisons use advanced technology to create an environment that combines total isolation with unending surveillance via camera.

It is well established that isolation and sensory deprivation can aggravate or even cause a variety of psychiatric symptoms. Prisoners subjected to extended isolation often experience depression, despair, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and an impaired ability to concentrate, think, or remember. Some describe cutting themselves just so they can feel something.

Controlling Radicals

Studies of the recent history of incarceration suggest that isolation and sensory deprivation were initially used in the 1960s as a technique for behavior modification with prisoners involved in the growing prisoners’ rights movement. In that era, Islamic militants, jailhouse lawyers, ethnically based prison gangs, and activists jailed for both nonviolent and violent political activities all posed potential challenges to the balance of power inside the prisons. The concerns raised by all of these populations about racism, brutality, overcrowding, and other conditions of confinement garnered considerable visibility and support from outside prison walls.

Many trace the continued expansion of isolation and the development of control units to the tumultuous years of the civil rights, anti-apartheid, native, and anti-war movements, when many activists found themselves in U.S. prisons. Incarceration, isolation, and torture were used on these political prisoners and then extended to other prisoners. Sensory deprivation was used extensively with imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Independentistas, members of the American Indian Movement, and white radicals. In later years, jailhouse lawyers, Islamic militants, and prisoner activists were placed in extended isolation.

Right now, efforts to expand the solitary confinement population involve the alleged spread of gang problems in U.S. prisons. Throughout the country, more supermax prisons are being built. In these gang prisons, called security threat group management units, prisoners are pressured to renounce their group membership.

Such tactics are reminiscent of the witch hunts during the McCarthy investigations in the 1950s, the ongoing FBI Counterintelligence Program, and current Department of Homeland Security directives. Ojore Lutalo was released to general population in 2002 and won a substantial monetary award for being held in isolation for 16 years. Less than two years later, he was placed back in isolation. When I called to ask why, I was told it was at the request of Homeland Security.

Once established, control units became increasingly normalized, morphing (with government subsidies) into supermax prisons, which were promoted by prison authorities as a cost-effective way of managing the huge increases in the incarceration of the 1990s—a safety and labor-saving measure permitting large numbers of people in prison to be controlled by fewer guards. In reality, when the costs are analyzed separately from the general costs of imprisonment, such settings turn out to be more, not less, expensive.

Torture Testimonies

One 17-year-old wrote about his experience with isolation in a juvenile facility, “If you do something wrong, they lock you down. They feed you when they want to feed you. One time it was 2 a.m. when they gave me a hard sandwich. I felt like I couldn’t get air. … I hurt so much.”

On Mother’s Day 2003 in Elizabeth, N.J., Eddie Sinclair, Jr. hanged himself in the Union County youth detention facility; Eddie, the 17-year-old son of an African father and a Puerto Rican mother, had stolen a bicycle. He had missed a court appointment and was picked up by police and locked in an isolation cage. 

AFSC receives letters from adult prisons describing not only isolation but also of the use of torture techniques which, according to credible testimonies, occur far more often in the isolation prisons than in general population: “John was directed to leave the strip cell and a urine-soaked pillow case was placed over his head like a hood. He was walked, shackled and hooded, to a different cell where he was placed in a device called ‘the chair,’ where he was kept for over 30 hours resulting in extreme physical and emotional suffering.”

Another writes with a description of a man who lay in his own filth for two days before dying. He had three broken vertebrae and a spinal fracture due to an interaction with guards. He had been treated by prison staff with Tylenol.

From a woman in Arizona: “The only thing you get in isolation is a peanut butter sandwich in the morning, a cheese sandwich in the afternoon, and for supper another peanut butter sandwich. If you want a drink here, you have to drink toilet water.”

From another woman in Missouri: “When I refused to move into a double cell, they came into my cell and dragged me out and threw me on my back. I was beaten about my face and head. One of the guards stuck his finger in my eye deliberately. I was then rolled on my stomach and cuffed on my wrists with leg irons on my ankles. … I was made to walk a thousand feet with the leg irons. Then they put me in a device called a restraint chair. When they put you in this chair your hands are cuffed behind your back and tucked under your buttocks. They stripped me naked … and kept me there over nine hours until I fouled myself on my hands which were tucked underneath me through a hole in the chair.”

Some of the saddest letters are from prisoners writing on behalf of the mentally ill living in enforced isolation in supermax prisons—like the man in California who spread feces over his body. The guards’ response to this was to put him in a bath so hot it boiled 30 percent of the skin off him.

Currently, people who are mentally ill, learning disabled, or illiterate constitute a large percentage of the prison population. Whether the origins of their problems are neurological, socioeconomic, or both, these populations often experience the greatest difficulties following prison rules, controlling their anger, or handling the prison environment. As a result, they are the most likely to be written up for disciplinary infractions and transferred to a control unit or supermax facility. Once there, they are the least able to withstand the rigors of isolation and the most susceptible to complete mental breakdown or even suicide.

Prisoners and their families have made thousands of calls and complaints describing inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical providers, isolation often lasting more than a decade, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality, and racism. AFSC has received vivid descriptions of four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, tethers, and waist and leg chains. Almost all the testimonies about the use of torture devices come from control units, supermax prisons, or other isolation units.

Human Rights Violations

Under international standards for human rights, extended isolation is considered a form of torture and is banned. The conditions and practices that the imprisoned describe are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Convention against Torture, and the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. U.S. prison practices also violate dozens of other international treaties and fit the U.N. definition of genocide.

In 1995, the U.N. Human Rights Committee stated that conditions in certain U.S. maximum security prisons were incompatible with international standards. In 1996, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture reported on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in U.S. supermax prisons. In 1998, the special rapporteur on violence against women took testimony in California on the ill treatment of women in U.S. prisons.

In 2000, the U.N. Committee on Torture roundly condemned the United States for its treatment of prisoners, citing supermax prisons and the use of torture devices, as well as the practice of jailing youth with adults. It also cited the use of stun belts and restraints chairs as violating the U.N. Convention against Torture. In May 2006, the same committee concluded that the United States should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermaximum prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation.”

When the news about the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib prison broke, President Bush said that “what took place in that prison doesn’t represent the America I know.” Unfortunately, for the more than 2.5 million U.S. citizens and countless undocumented immigrants living in U.S. prisons, this is the “America” that they know and experience daily. What happened at Abu Ghraib—what is happening at secret prisons all over the world and at Guantánamo Bay—is a reflection of the physical and mental abuse taking place every day to men, women, and children living in the jails and prisons of this country.

Isolation units, supermax prisons, sensory deprivation, brutality toward prisoners, and the use of devices of torture are all violations of human rights and of fundamental human decency. All have little or nothing to do with the safe and orderly operation of correctional institutions and everything to do with the spread of a culture of violence, retribution, dehumanization, and sadism.

Bonnie Kerness is a lifelong anti-racist activist, beginning in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. She coordinates the Prison Watch Project for the American Friends Service Committee in the New York Metropolitan Region and has helped publish “The Prison Inside the Prison: Control Units, Supermax Prisons and Devices of Torture,” “The Survivor’s Manual,” and “Our Children’s House.”

Bonnie Kerness

Bonnie Kerness is a lifelong anti-racist activist, beginning in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. She coordinates the Prison Watch Project for the American Friends Service Committee in the New York Metropolitan Region and has helped publish “The Prison Inside the Prison: Control Units, Supermax Prisons and Devices of Torture,” “The Survivor’s Manual,” and “Our Children’s House.”