What is a prison system to do with what are sometimes called the “worst of the worst” among its charges? How can prisons handle individuals who have been so violent that they cannot be housed in the general population? For decades, in the United States, the answer has been to place them, along with tens of thousands of lesser offenders, in long-term solitary confinement.
Over the past year, calls for the reform of solitary have emerged from across the political spectrum and from the highest echelons of power. All seem committed to reducing the number of people held in isolation. Yet many of these reformers have said that are some people who simply belong in solitary.
Even among advocates committed to ending prolonged solitary for everyone, questions remain about how to identify which individuals cannot be safely held in general population, and how to manage these individuals in a way that is humane.
Our closest ally, the United Kingdom, holds a far smaller proportion of people in supermax conditions of long-term isolation. Her Majesty’s Prison Service, which covers England and Wales, incarcerates about 85,000 people. About sixty of the “most significantly disruptive, challenging, and dangerous prisoners” are held in small, highly supervised units called Close Supervision Centres (CSCs).
The CSC system is supposed to enable the successful identification of those who cannot be safely held in general population – without condemning those individuals to a lifetime of solitary confinement. Could it be a model for America’s prisons?
Supermax Units in the US and England: CSCs and SHUs
In both the US and the UK, the 1980s brought to the fore the difficult question of how prisons should manage whom they deemed the so-called worst of the worst. In the United States, the growth of the supermax option can be traced to 1983, when two guards were killed in the control unit at Marion federal prison in Illinois.
As the overall prison population continued to increase, states across the country built new facilities, or remodeled existing ones, in order to accommodate those prisoners perceived to be high-risk. The notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, in California, opened in 1989 to house “inmates presenting serious management concerns.” ADX Florence, which the Bureau of Prisons opened in 1994, was purpose-built for the long-term isolation of the people determined to be highest-risk in the federal prison system.
By the early 2000s there were more than 25,000 supermax beds in 44 states, and tens of thousands more in the Special Housing Units (SHUs) of conventional prisons. And once these facilities were built, they were filled—not only with truly dangerous individuals, but also with nonviolent rule-breakers and anyone deemed a threat to prison order.
Across the Atlantic, the English prison system was also struggling with how to effectively gain control over the most “difficult” prisoners. Instead of building supermax facilities, HM Prison Service established small, separate units within high-security men’s prisons. In 1998, after a number of the most highly classified prisoners escaped from Whitemoor prison, the Labour government proposed the creation the Closed Supervision Centres (CSCs). The CSCs would be overseen and coordinated as a national system, and designed to be progressive, so that even the “most highly disruptive” prisoners could eventually be placed back into general population.
Today, the CSC system has five units scattered across England’s High Security Estate. Most people in the CSCs have been convicted of serious crimes and are alleged to have committed violent acts on the inside, like attacking a prison officer or holding other prisoners hostage. While short-term solitary confinement lasting days or weeks is not uncommon in the British prison system, long-term solitary is rare outside of the CSCs.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, an independent government organization, publishes reports on the treatment of individuals held inside the UK’s prisons and immigration detention centers. In August 2015, after doing site visits of all the units, and surveying CSC prisoners and staff, the Inspectorate released a report on the Close Supervision Centers.
Although the report commends CSC staff for managing such a challenging population and introducing rehabilitative programs into some units, the report also outlines out some serious shortcomings, including inconsistent program delivery across the CSC system and a lack of “robust, independent scrutiny” in the selection and deselection of prisoners.
Selection and Deselection into the CSCs
One of the most controversial aspects of the use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons is how people end up there. Selection processes vary widely by prison, as well as the kind of solitary – for example, disciplinary segregation for punishment, or administrative segregation for institutional safety or security. But in many facilities across the country, the power to put someone in solitary rests in the hands of a single guard or a handful of administrators, and people can end up in the “box” for months or years for committing nonviolent disciplinary infractions, or simply having alleged political or social affiliations.
Prior to a recent settlement, for example, at Pelican Bay prison people could be placed in indefinite solitary confinement after being “gang validated,” sometimes simply for possessing a particular piece of artwork or waving to an already “gang validated” individual. And decisions about how someone got placed in the box at Pelican Bay often came down to just one man: the gang investigator. In 2009, less than 1 percent of validations were rejected – meaning that if the prison staff wanted someone in the box, they went.
In the United States, people are also placed in solitary simply as a result of their crime or their sentence. For example, in nearly every state, people on death row are automatically placed in solitary confinement, without any individual evaluation of the risk they might pose in general population.
Not so in Britain. There is a detailed process–at least on paper–for placing an individual on a CSC and re-evaluating his placement on the units. The CSC Management Committee (CSCMC) reviews referrals with input from a range of actors involved in the prisoner’s daily life, including guards and mental health/psychiatric staff (the forms that referring staff must fill out are available in the CSC referral handbook). Candidates for the CSC then undergo an assessment and testing period of up to four months. They have the right to make legal representations to the CSCMC, and to receive copies of all the reports utilized for their eventual assessment.
Importantly, not everyone who is referred to the CSC is accepted into the units. According to HM Prison Service, between September 2011 and February 2012 there were 11 referrals to the CSCs, and just over half were even selected for assessment to the unit.
Once someone is selected into the CSC, a Care and Management Plan is devised, according to the CSC Manual. The plan is supposed to simply and specifically outline targets for the prisoner that would enable him to leave the CSC. It is meant to address issues such as “triggers and protective factors,” and “self-harm or suicide risk.” Plans are scheduled to be reviewed quarterly, and theoretically at least, these meetings can be attended by a range of staff, a legal representative, the prisoner, and even his family.
The result is system that is far more procedurally robust than in any long-term solitary confinement units in the United States, according to Andrew Coyle, who spent 24 years as a warden in the British prison system. Last year, Coyle submitted expert evidence in Ashker v. Brown, the federal lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners incarcerated in Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit.
“There should be a clear, well-defined system for identifying which prisoners require to be held in high security conditions,” he notes in the submission, something the Pelican Bay SHU lacks. “The degree of risk which they pose should be assessed individually on a continuing and regular basis.”
Still, the process of selecting individuals into the CSCs, and re-evaluating their placement, is far from perfect. According to the Inspectorate report, “while the assessment, selection and review processes were detailed, no external independent organisation was involved in or challenged these key decisions in a meaningful way to ensure fairness and proportionality.”
“Progress reviews took place regularly but the requirement to continue to hold a prisoner within the system was not formally reviewed on an annual basis,” the report adds. “There was no process within the system to allow prisoners to appeal formally their allocation or their continued detention in the system.”
One CSC prisoner contacted by Solitary Watch said that the allocation processes to the CSC is “entirely arbitrary.” He said that suitability for the CSC should be initially identified by the prisoner’s trial judge, after a CSC assessment an impartial tribunal should evaluate the need to place the individual in the CSC.
With changes to British legal aid in 2012, people in prison no longer have the right to free legal counsel to challenge their selection or continued placement in the CSCs, which presumably leaves many individuals unable to fully press for their release from isolation.
As with U.S. solitary confinement, selection processes for the CSCs also appear to have a discriminatory impact upon racial and religious minorities. According to the Inspectorate report, almost half the prisoners incarcerated in the CSC are Muslim – despite the fact that Muslims comprise just 13 percent of the English population and 19 percent of the high security prison population. Black and minority ethnic men also made up a disproportionate percentage of those held in the CSCs.
Much as in supermax prisons in the United States, the CSC regime has come under criticism for holding a high number of people with severe mental illness, and sometimes failing to provide them with appropriate treatment. In 2011, one CSC prisoner sliced off his remaining ear, months after he had cut of his other ear with a razor blade
Life Inside the CSCs
The conditions inside American supermax prisons are stark and extreme: people spending months, years or even decades in small, cramped cells, with little or no opportunities to interact with others or access to fresh air or sunlight. For a proportion of prisoners on the CSCs, perhaps a significant minority, conditions on the CSCs appear similar to those inside America’s harshest prisons.
Daniel Sonnex, who is serving forty years to life for a 2008 double murder, has been in the CSC system for about three and a half years. He is currently incarcerated at the Exceptional Risk Unit at Wakefield prison, near Leeds, which places the greatest restrictions on CSC prisoners.
Lisa Sonnex, Daniel’s cousin, described conditions of almost absolute isolation. “Dano has literally no normal human contact in [the] CSC, just prison officers dressed in riot gear at least six at a time who unlock him and pass food, etc” she told Solitary Watch via email. “[O]nly on visits does he have some form of contact with family. Dano is locked up 23 hours a day but mostly 24 hours a day as he is regularly denied his exercise and showers.”
Prisoners at Wakefield spend only two or three hours out of their cell each day, according to the Inspectorate report, and some were prohibited from spending time with other people on the unit.
The physical CSC units also contribute to the isolating and repressive nature of the regime, according to the Inspectorate report. “The CSC units varied greatly: some were claustrophobic and oppressive and all of them obstructed prisoners’ view of the outside, which could only be seen through bars, caged exercise yards and razor wire.” Exercise yards are “generally consisted of dehumanising austere cages.”
Kevan Thackrar, who has been in the CSC system for about five and a half years and is also currently incarcerated at Wakefield, described a dark, windowless cell with no bed and a hatch on the door to handcuff individuals for transport. He told Solitary Watch, that exercise takes place in a concrete yard topped by tarpaulin so prisoners have no direct access to sunlight.
Thackrar’s description of the effects of the CSC echo those of people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. “Being in the CSC causes everyone to deteriorate significantly, some quicker than others,” he said in a letter. “Some guys become insane in days, others last years, but without a doubt everyone is damaged by the experience.”
As they do in American supermax prisons, prisoners in CSCs find it particularly difficult to stay in touch with friends and family on the outside. According to a survey conducted by the Inspectorate, 70 percent of men in the CSC have had trouble sending and receiving mail, and 40 percent said it was “very difficult” for friends and family to come visit.
Conditions at Wakefield CSC appear be particularly harsh. According to the data collected by the Inspectorate, overall the CSC units offer more opportunities for human contact than American supermax prisons. For example, according to the Inspectorate report, a little less than 60 percent of CSC prisoners have opportunities to spend time with others on the unit. Just under 50 percent of those surveyed had spent part of the previous day in the open air–something which prisoners in a number of U.S. prisons may not experience for decades. And only 14 percent of CSC prisoners always had non-contact visits with family and friends.
Furthermore, most of the men held in the CSCs seemed to have some positive and trusting relationships with guards. When asked, 69 percent said the staff treated them with respect, and 72 percent said there was a member of staff they could turn to for help if they had a problem.
The Possibility of Rehabilitation and Reintegration
The aspect of the CSC system that may make it most distinct from American supermax facilities, is its stated commitment to progression and reintegration. The men held there are supposed to “benefit from a purpose regime which supports efforts to address problematic behavior, and clearly focuses on progression and reintegration.”
According to the Inspectorate report, most prisoners on the CSCs had “access to one-to-one psychology support at least once a week,” a reality that would be unthinkable in most supermax facilities in the United States. The CSC unit at Whitemoor prison offers a violence reduction program, which is designed to enable the men “to develop and practice strategies for managing their problematic behavior.” Since 2012, two men have successfully graduated from the program and moved out of the CSC system. This week, HMPS announced they were introducing one-on-one mindfulness and meditation training to prisoners inside the CSC in an effort to address mental health and emotional regulation issues amongst the population.
However, some prisoners, including Kevan Thackrar, have been frequently placed in “designated cells,” which are located within the prison’s segregation unit and hold CSC prisoners allegedly engaging in unmanageable behavior. In an interview with Solitary Watch, Inspectorate staff noted that CSC prisoners were sometimes placed in designated cells for months or years, during which time they could not access the specialist support available on the CSCs, or access to programming, showers, or phone calls.
When surveyed, the majority CSC prisoners reported that they did not have enough to do either inside or outside of their cells, and the Inspectorate report notes that opportunities for education are “extremely limited.” Although the CSC system is supposed to be managed nationally, the staffing for the units is determined locally, so the quality and availability of programming also varies significantly between prisons.
In practice, it seems, people incarcerated in the CSCs do not feel that the regime is designed to support their rehabilitation and well-being. About half of the prisoners polled in the Inspectorate survey were unaware of what targets had been outlined in their Care and Management Plan, which is supposed to guide their progressive steps to reintegration in the general population. More than half (53 percent) told the Inspectorate they did not know what they had to do in order to return to mainstream conditions. Less a third of prisoners polled (31 percent) felt that someone was helping them to complete their targets so they could progress out of the CSC.
One prisoner wrote on his survey, “‘I haven’t been in the CSC even a year yet so I haven’t got much to say about the system other than since 1998 only five people have been deselected after selection into [this] CSC. When faced with these statistics I’m left with little hope.” That sentiment was echoed by lawyers, prisoners, and family members interviewed by Solitary Watch: that the CSC system was most often a one-way street, in which those who were selected into the regime would struggle for years to get out.
In an interview with Solitary Watch, Inspectorate staff member Sean Sullivan noted that although 10 people have progressed out of the CSC system since 2008, many have simply been moved into psychiatric units, and they have sometimes subsequently returned to the CSCs. This revolving door between the CSCs and forensic psych units was also noted by prisoners’ families, who lamented how difficult it is to be mainstreamed into general population after being placed within the CSC system.
What Becomes of the “Worst of the Worst”?
In his book Understanding Prisons, Andrew Coyle writes of the need to maintain a balance between managing minimizing the risks to safety posed by “prisoners who are determined to be violent and destructive,” and ensuring that these individuals are “treated decently and humanely.”
“It is by no means clear that the [British] prison service always gets this balance right,” Coyle concludes. “What it has managed to do is to keep the numbers of prisoners who fall into this category to a minimum and to acknowledge that its management of them needs to be open to scrutiny.”
With its stated commitment to reintegration of CSC prisoners and minimizing the harmful psychological effects of solitary confinement, the English system prison at least pays lip service to treating even so-called worst of the worst as human. Furthermore, there are stringent processes for selection into the CSCs, and institutions in place–like the Inspectorate–charged with evaluating the success or failure of the CSCs and designating areas in need of improvement.
The English prison system is illuminating for any American who doubts our ability to vastly diminish the number of people held in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement. Yet despite their small size and supposed safeguards, the CSCs often come dangerously close to becoming little more than warehouses for a class of prisoners deemed incorrigible.
According to Hamish Arnott and Simon Creighton, solicitors at Bhatt Murphy who have worked on CSCs for years, the creation of CSCs was a “movement away from anything therapeutic.” CSC prisoners were seen as “a problem to be controlled,” they said in an interview, “rather than people with problems needing to be treated.”
Ultimately, the CSC system raises important questions about what it means to create a category of people deemed the “worst of the worst,” and whether it is possible to create an institutional culture and implement a prison regime that affirms the possibility of everyone’s rehabilitation.
The question is in large part philosophical, but has pragmatic implications. Can we willingly condemn people to the torture of long-term isolation, whether in the CSCs or the SHUs, without reducing them in our eyes, without rubber-stamping the idea that they are beyond saving?
This article, and Solitary Watch’s Alternatives Project, are supported by a grant from the Langeloth Foundation.