On June 12, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded that Ohio¡¯s supermax prison in Youngstown imposes an ¡°atypical and significant hardship¡± on inmates. Even so, the state plans to relocate 200 death row inmates from Mansfield to Youngstown. Prisoner rights activists are fighting the move.

Before becoming an Ohio State Penitentiary physician, Dr. Ayham Haddad experienced a different side of incarceration, as a political prisoner in Syria. He was arrested and tortured. Upon his release in 1991, Haddad immigrated to the United States to begin a new life.

Now a general practitioner at Ohio¡¯s only supermax, he has a comparative perspective few could imagine, and is amazed to find that the supermax prison where he works also fails to address important human rights issues. ¡°In Syria, I was in solitary confinement for four months,¡± Haddad reflected. ¡°But here, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for years!¡±

On June 13, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy expressed similar concerns, finding that ¡°conditions at OSP are more restrictive than any other form of incarceration in Ohio, including conditions on its death row.¡± Justice Kennedy stated that prisoners in Youngstown were ¡°deprived of almost any environmental or sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact.¡± He also critically noted a holding policy that retained prisoners ¡°for an indefinite period of time, limited only by an inmate¡¯s sentence.¡±

Kennedy was referring here to the fact that Ohio is one of only two states to disqualify supermax prisoners from eligibility for parole. After surveying 26 out of 30 states operating supermax prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights found that only Ohio and Maine were disqualifying parole. Prisoners at Youngstown¡¯s OSP are typically locked under solitary confinement until they ¡°max out¡± (jailhouse slang for the end of a sentence).

When the two civil rights groups took the state of Ohio to court in 2002, the Ohio State Penitentiary was in operation for 3¨ö years, and 200 of its prisoners had been in solitary confinement for more than three years. In most other states, many of these prisoners would have qualified for parole.

The story of Kunta Kenyatta is a case in point. While serving a sentence at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, the Cleveland native became eligible for parole in 2002. But after being transferred to the newly opened Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, in 1998, his parole was indefinitely put on hold. ¡°If I hadn¡¯t sued to get out of there, I would have been there until 2016,¡± said Kenyatta, who served 16 years in prison for a crime committed in his youth.

It is the idea of indefinite detention that troubles Dr. Haddad the most. ¡°I love America,¡± he told me over a glass of Arak. ¡°But you can punish people and put them in the hole for a month or two. You can¡¯t put them for five year in solitary confinement!¡± The doctor shook his head in disbelieve.

Kenyatta was paroled in November 2002 following a successful class action suit which questioned the legitimacy of his transfer. The soft-spoken man whose African name means ¡°the musician¡± said that the prison administration had sent him to the supermax for being a political disturbance. Kenyatta wore dreadlocks at the time, had a collection of political books, such as the works of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, and he was helping other prisoners to legally change their names. ¡°They accused me of trying to form an unauthorized group, which to them made me one of the worst of the worst.¡±

Breeding violent fantasies
At the Youngstown supermax, prisoners are locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, in bleak concrete cells measuring 7¨ö-by-11 feet. Each cell has a sink and toilet, a small desk, a concrete stool, a narrow concrete slab with a thin mattress, and a slim rectangular window.

Visits, telephone calls, and mail from family and friends are restricted, and reading material is censored. Every time a prisoner leaves the cell, a full strip search is conducted ¦¡ even though he may have had no direct contact with another human being for months.

There is evidence to show that this combination of physical isolation and extreme regulatory control leads to lasting psychological problems. ¡°People in this prison have some personality disorders to start with. [Many came here] because they violated other people¡¯s boundaries,¡± Haddad observed. ¡°But I don¡¯t think OSP improves their mental status. In fact, their mental status often deteriorates.¡± Research findings support the doctor¡¯s view. The Harvard University Medical School psychiatrist, Stuart Grassian, found that solitary confinement can lead to an agitated, hallucinatory, and confused psychotic state, often involving random violence and self-mutilation, suicidal behavior, and other agitated, fearful symptoms.

¡°I was pretty cynical when I was brought into it, I didn¡¯t think I was going to find anything,¡± recalled Grassian in an American Friends Service Committee report after first visiting a supermax prison. ¡°But [¡¦] it was shocking to see what I found ¦¡ that these inmates were so ill, that they all tended to be ill in very similar kinds of ways, and they were so frightened of what was happening to them that they weren¡¯t exaggerating their illness. They were tending to minimize it, to deny it. They were scared of it.¡±

The idea of living in a concrete box without knowing how long you will remain there ¦¡ indefinite detention ¦¡ is known to create trauma symptoms similar to those experienced by hostages: Anxiety, headaches, lethargy, trouble sleeping, nervous breakdowns, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.

Prisoners often begin experiencing these effects after ten days in solitary confinement according to Craig Haney, in Crime and Delinquency (2003). The University of California psychologist conducted interviews with more than 100 prisoners at California¡¯s Pelican Bay ¡°security housing unit,¡± a prototypical supermax prison.

The study¡¯s results were disturbing. Haney detected 12 specific psychopathological effects of prolonged isolation among inmates, such as irrational anger (88%), social withdrawal (83%), chronic depression (77%), and violent fantasies (61%). His conclusion was equally disturbing. Not only did supermax incarceration cause a psychological trauma similar to war trauma, but it also greatly undermined a prisoner¡¯s prospects for rehabilitation and successful reentry into society.

Kenyatta said he would have lost his psychological balance if it hadn¡¯t been for his penpals and books. ¡°It¡¯s really stressful, and often times you explode and get mad.¡± He recalled how inmates who were illiterate were hit the hardest. ¡°They were basically cut off from the world. So some of them started smearing feces in their faces, or taking it out on their cell doors.¡±

Even the most resilient individual carries the scars of solitary confinement long after being released. Two years after his release, Kenyatta, who keeps his Canton home meticulously tidy, said it would be difficult for him to imagine living with someone else. ¡°I still don¡¯t fell comfortable with crowds.¡±

Grassian and Haney make reference to multiple cases where ex-prisoners committed murders or serious assaults after being released from supermax prisons. While it goes without question that the victims of traumatic experiences should seek psychiatric counseling, Haney points out that such treatment is not typically extended to supermax prisoners after lengthier confinement. ¡°Do we allow what we believe to be their blameworthiness for this kind of mistreatment ¦¡ that they earned it, they deserve it, they asked for it ¦¡ to blur our understanding of the consequences of the mistreatment itself?,¡± the psychologist asked.

Ohio¡¯s Abu Ghraib?
The lawyer and historian Staughton Lynd said he wasn¡¯t surprised to hear reports that prisoners of war in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib had been victims of torture and other human rights violations. He could imagine that this treatment was an extension of patterns he¡¯d observed at maximum-security prisons in the U.S.

¡°What this country learns to do to the 2 million people in its prisons, it has extended to other people all over the world,¡± Lynd said. ¡°And of course, it does so easily, because these people are very often of dark skin. They are substitutes for the dark-skinned people that white Americans hate in this country.¡±

The retired attorney lives in a small bungalow in Niles, near Youngstown, from which he and his wife Alice are leading their fight to humanize the supermax prison system. Their work is inspired by a background in civil rights advocacy. In the mid-60s Staughton Lynd had directed the Mississippi Freedom Schools and taught history to African-American students at Spellman College.

After moving to Youngstown, the Lynds worked as labor lawyers when the steel mills shut down in the early 1980s. After the mills closed, the prisons came, and they both quickly recognized that legal controls on this new ¡°industry¡± would be the next cause they¡¯d need to undertake.

During a May 21 public tour of the 500-bed facility, the Ohio State Penitentiary¡¯s spokesperson, Keith Fletcher, informed us that one should not forget that a supermax prison was ¡°not a spa.¡± Although prisoners at OSP were Ohio¡¯s ¡°worst of the worst,¡± said Fletcher, they still received television, medical coverage, and even the option of a vegetarian menu. The supermax prison was also air-conditioned with ¡°tempered air.¡±

During the tour, Fletcher downplayed solitary confinement¡¯s effects on prisoners. In doing research for this piece, I discovered that the United Nations mandates that all prisoners have access to fresh air. The OSP¡¯s ¡°tempered air system¡± and tight lock down, appeared to violate this mandate. I wanted to ask the Ohio State Penitentiary warden, Marc Houk, about this concern, but was not given the opportunity. The OSP spokesperson, Keith Fletcher, informed me that Houk was ¡°not entertaining interview requests at this time relative to living conditions.¡±

It would be no surprise to learn that supermax administrators were aware of the damaging affects of solitary confinement on the human psyche. Speaking on the condition of anonymity one Oregon State Penitentiary administrator drew a parallel between supermaxes and dog pounds. ¡°When I walk through a [dog] pound I get a sense of, what are we doing?¡± he told Lorna Rhodes, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington. Rhodes wrote a fieldwork case study of Washington State¡¯s attempts to reform its prison system, in which she concluded that rehabilitation within this punitive environment was not possible. Prisons designed to maintain inmates in long-term solitary confinement were simply inhumane.

¡°Like the pound, units like this extend a condition of abandonment from which ¦¡ by implication ¦¡ the only exit might be death,¡± Rhodes wrote in Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. ¡°The dog that ¡®cowers¡¯ and can¡¯t show himself to be happy is the one no one will take ¦¡ the one too abused to respond.¡±

The design for supermax prisons emerged in response to an increase in prison violence during the 1970s, when the number of guards being murdered by prisoners increased nationwide. In the social climate of the Reagan years, legislators began to favor the idea of permanently isolating troublemakers in expensive new high-security facilities, while they simultaneously took funding away from rehabilitation programs. By 1997, forty-five states and the District of Columbia, as well as the federal prison system, were operating supermaximum prisons.

By the mid-1990s, however, these supermaxes had become the subject of an increasing number of lawsuits and human rights protests. Prisoners and their attorneys were reporting a rise in the routine use of devices like stun belts, stun guns, and restraint chairs.

It was also in the mid-1990s that the battle against Ohio¡¯s only supermax prison began.

Humanizing the hole
In January 2001, Charles Austin and 28 other prisoners filed a lawsuit against Reginald Wilkinson, the director of Ohio¡¯s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, with the claim that their Eighth Amendment rights had been violated. the prisoners argued that medical and psychiatric care and recreation were inadequate at OSP, and that physical restraints were too harsh. Prisoners received medical injections through their narrow food slots, for example, and they were handcuffed with both hands to the wall during medical exams.

High security prisoners had not been outdoors for almost four years. Those permitted outside were placed in small, completely enclosed exercise rooms about the size of their cells, with an opening to the sky approximately six inches wide and four feet high. The ACLU won a case against the restrictive access. Staughton Lynd, who worked as counsel for the ACLU on the case, recalled that while Ohio termed this room the ¡°outdoor exercise¡± area, the district court found ¡°it hard to believe anyone would seriously suggest such a space constitutes outdoor recreation.¡±

In February 2002, the plaintiffs won another significant legal victory when a federal district court ruled that the state must follow strict due-process guidelines before sending prisoners to OSP.

When the trial was over, Lynd and his wife Alice began to visit inmates suffering from the condition of living in solitary confinement. ¡°And it was as if the warden was following us around with a flashlight, because we represented the whole class [action suit]. We would see a prisoner on a Wednesday and the next Monday he would be out of there.¡±

The number of people in solitary confinement began to rapidly drop when a court-ordered review of individual cases determined that two-thirds of the prisoners did not meet the criteria for such restrictive confinement. ¡°The supermax has been built to hold approximately 450 prisoners,¡± Lynd said. ¡°There are now roughly 250. So, you have to say that we have very nearly cut the population in half.¡±

The state of Ohio is apparently looking for a strategy to fill those empty cells.

In March 2005, the state announced plans to move all of its death row prisoners from the prison in Mansfield to the OSP. The $157 daily cost per inmate would drop if the facility had more prisoners, state officials have argued. Specific details have not been disclosed.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed legal action to block the transfer of about 200 death row inmates to OSP, and is preparing legal action for an August 12 hearing. Filed in the Northern District of Ohio Federal Court with Judge James Gwin, the ACLU lawyers will argue that the wholesale transfer of an entire category of prisoners violates the concept of individualized hearings.

Lynd said he believes that the relocation of death row prisoners to Youngstown would lead to a deterioration of their mental health, more suicides and an increase in requests to ¡°volunteer¡± for execution.

¡°We are fighting Ohio¡¯s plan to move death row tooth and nail,¡± Lynd said. After once meeting with a supermax client who had just been handcuffed with his arms behind his back for 2¨ö hours, the attorney remembered sharing his gut response to the incidence with his wife Alice: ¡°Give me a teaspoon, so I can start tearing this place down.¡±