Prisons. Establishing a New Self Identity.
Early American colonists practiced punitive methods on offenders that were universally common at the time. Widespread practices included such things as branding and confining people in stocks on public display. These harsh methods came into conflict with the democratic ideals established by the American Revolution. Many perceived (as many perceive today) a dilemma of imprisoning individuals in a free society.
The attempt to reconcile that dilemma began with the American Quakers establishing a new type of prison in 1790—the Philadelphia Walnut Street Jail. The jail was based on a lofty goal of reforming convicts through solitary confinement and total abstinence from alcohol. The only reading material allowed was a bible. Because the inmates performed penance through their solitude and isolation, the Walnut Street Jail was called a “Penitentiary House.” Needless to say the idea of forcing people to reform through solitary confinement failed. Many inmates reportedly went mad.
The Penitentiary was the outcome of a reform movement with a misplaced sense of priorities. Even though the idea was a flop, the mission for prisons was forever engraved within the lexicon of corrections. The primary mission of prisons was to “correct”, reform, or rehabilitate inmates.
American prisons have been held to that measure ever since. Any attempt by politicians or administrators to establish policies that appear more punitive or controlling is immediately attacked by reformers as tampering with or abandoning the “true” mission. Prisons are held accountable if inmates are released and commit more crimes. They’re called human warehouses regardless of the educational and vocational learning they provide.
Because many consider prisons incompatible with a free society (except for the most violent) it seems that nothing they do can fully redeem their usefulness. They’re called violent schools of crime but when they clamp down on violence they become more oppressive in the eyes of critics.
On October 22, 1983, inmate Thomas Silverstein, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang was released from his cell in the Control Unit of the U.S. Penitentiary Marion, to take a shower. He was shackled but as he passed in front of another cell an inmate slipped him a “shank” and an improvised handcuff key. After freeing his hands Silverstein attacked officer Merle Clutts and killed him by stabbing him 40 times.
Later that same day, another Aryan Brotherhood member, Clayton Fountain used the same method to kill another Marion Correctional Officer, Robert Hoffman. The back-to-back murders sent shock waves throughout the Bureau of Prisons. I was working at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary at the time and the news created a depressing pall of gloom that lasted several days.
The Marion Federal Penitentiary was the most secure prison in the country and had replaced Alcatraz after it closed in 1963. The Marion control unit was like a maximum-security unit within a maximum-security prison. It housed the most violent offenders in the system-the worst of the worse.
Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain were exactly the types of inmates the unit was designed for. In 1981 they were charged with killing a black inmate at Marion by strangling him to death. Silverstein and Fountain then killed a friend of the murdered inmate who had sought to avenge his death. They reportedly stabbed the inmate 67 times and then dragged his bloody corpse up and down the prison tier so that other prisoners could see their handiwork.
Through these murders, Silverstein and Fountain were sending a message on behalf of the Aryan Brotherhood that no matter where you locked them up they’d get to you. It should be noted that there was no federal death penalty at the time of these murders and Silverstein and Fountain were already serving life sentences for murder. The Bureau of Prisons clearly got the message.
The Bureau consequently “locked down” Marion, meaning that all inmates would be locked in their cells 23 hours a day. Marion, thus essentially, became the nation’s first “super max” prison. The response from angry inmate advocates was swift and expected. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was hit by a wave of lawsuits claiming cruel and unusual punishment.
The BOP eventually prevailed in court and set out to build a new institution specifically designed as a super max facility. The states meanwhile were watching and waiting to see what would happen once the dust settled.
In 1994, the BOP announced the opening of its new Administrative Maximum (ADMAX) Facility in Florence, Colorado. Silverstein and Fountain, meanwhile, were transferred to other federal prisons. Fountain died of a heart attack in 2004 and Silverstein is now housed at the ADMAX. Critics have been decrying the use solitary confinement since super max prisons began proliferating after the BOP successfully fended off all initial lawsuits.
One way of looking at super max facilities is that they are prisons for the prison population “community”. Many inmates will tell staff that they’re happy the Bureau of Prisons provides a place to keep dangerous predators away from them.
With 490 inmates in federal super max out of a population of 219,000, this comes out to an “incarceration rate” of about 224 per 100,000. This is considerably lower than the U.S. incarceration rate of 738 per 100,000 (and lower than the top ten countries’ incarceration rates) that critics constantly quote to criticize our nation’s criminal justice policies.
Partly because of ADMAX, where the most violent and dangerous inmates can be isolated from the rest of the population, and for other reasons, homicides within BOP facilities have taken a nosedive. Many states have also built their own super max facilities instituted other innovations. Consequently, our prisons are more peaceful than 35 years ago.
This has happened despite a surge of the prison population, and “severe overcrowding” contrary to what the experts have long predicted and warned us about. Better staff training and inmate classification systems have dramatically decreased prison homicides. Between 1980 and 2003 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000. This should strike inmate advocates as good news but they persist in condemning prisons as if nothing’s changed since the 1971 Attica riot.
New and ever-changing conditions in society require new and innovative operating practices. Critics nonetheless continue to malign prisons for failing to perform the mission imposed on them by religious zealots more than two hundred years ago. Because of this corrections in general and prisons in particular have suffered from a kind of identity crisis. This crisis was, and still remains in some jurisdictions, demonstrated in a vague or even contradicting sense of mission.