Revolution #239, July 17, 2011

Interview with Lance Tapley, journalist

U.S.: "The World Torture Champions"

Lance Tapley is an award winning investigative journalist at the Portland Phoenix in Maine where he has covered the Supermax prison in Maine. Lance is also one of the contributors to the anthology The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse. This interview was originally done on The Michael Slate Show and it is being posted at courtesy of The Michael Slate Show (KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles, 98.7fm Santa Barbara, worldwide).

Michael Slate: Your piece, "Notes from the Supermax Prisons," opens with the statement that the American prison system has become a monster. What do you mean by that?

Lance Tapley: Well, we are an exceptional nation as you know, and we are the world torture champions in what happens in our prison system. That's qualitatively. Quantitatively, we have of course the biggest prison system in the world. We have 4.5% of the world's population, and 25% of its prisoners. We have five times the world average incarceration rate, 2.3 million people behind bars, two thirds of them are Black or Hispanic. I could go on. Our incarceration rate is four times what it was in 1980.

Slate: One of the things that you say, though, in relation to all this, is that beyond the mushrooming of imprisonment, in U.S. society, that there's actually been something over the last few decades, a network of supermax prisons that are not only extraordinarily cruel, but in fact constitute a network of mass torture unique in the world and in history. Can you explain that?

Tapley: Well, that is a pretty big claim, I realize. Supermax prisons are, well, "supermax" stands for super-maximum security, and they feature solitary confinement, and they feature total control, lots of harshness. There's a basic sort of idea here that one must be exceptionally harsh with people in these prisons. Estimates vary, but there are at least 36,000, and upwards to 75 to 100 thousand—depending on how you want to count it, on how you want to define it—people in these prisons in the federal, especially the state systems, county, city jails, etc.

But they're all on the same template, which is super-maximum security, or supermax. And there is no other country that does this. There's an occasional supermax here and there. But for example in England and Wales, there are 75,000 prisoners. There are about forty people who might be considered to be in this category of imprisonment there.

Slate: Even in places like Nazi Germany, this kind of treatment, of isolation, was rare.

Tapley: Well, for one thing, it's expensive. It's two or three times the expense of general population imprisonment, and people in other countries just apparently weren't willing to do that. I'm sure if the Nazis had thought of it, and they felt they had the money, they would have done it. But we've done it. It's a mass torture that I haven't been able to find any historical parallel to, and certainly there's no parallel in other countries.

We in this country spend a lot of time talking about human rights violations in other countries, and of course there are a number of people rightfully upset with what has happened at Guantanamo and before that Abu Ghraib, but we really don't have yet a consciousness that is widespread in this country about the really big crime in terms of this torture sweepstakes if you will, which is the supermax prisons in the U.S.

Slate: That's the good old spirit of American capitalism: "We not only thought about it, but goddam it, we did it!" Think about what that's saying about the nature of this society, and what it's unleashed upon the world, in terms of it being unparalleled and unprecedented. One of the things you talk about is that this parallels a lot what the U.S. is doing internationally.

Tapley: Well, you know Bradley Manning recently, his imprisonment in solitary confinement has brought this issue more to the fore, and I've noticed that on news sites and blog sites, people are starting to talk about what's happening in this country. He is in a military prison. But we had this concern among many people, in the special prisons for example at Guantánamo and at rendition sites and so forth that the military and the CIA have had, but we just haven't had much of a consciousness. But I think this consciousness is growing and people are starting to say, "Why are we doing this?" And that's a very big question.

Slate: You brought up Bradley Manning, and in your piece you bring up two forms of torture. One is cell extractions, which I think you can talk to a little bit and let people know what they are, and the other is the forced isolation, the solitary confinement, and you describe that as the worst form of torture inflicted on supermax prisoners. Can you speak to those two things?

Tapley: Cell extractions are when you do something that the guards don't like, for example, if you maybe paste something over the tiny window in your steel door to your cell and they can't see what you're doing. Or you refuse to put your hands through your food slot. You're fed through this slot, that you don't have any contact normally with other human beings. Or you might even just curse out a guard. And then they send in a team, a kind of SWAT team and they knock you down and they put ankle shackles on, and handcuffs on and they drag you out, and often they'll cut your clothes off and they'll take you down the cell block to the restraint room and put you in the restraint chair to cool you off. This often damages prisoners greatly. This is very bad physically.

But a lot of people have the ability to recover from physical harm. But it's very difficult to recover from psychological harm that solitary confinement inflicts. There's been a massive body of medical literature on solitary confinement for 150 years, actually, because it was tried in the 19th century, and it was abandoned. It just makes people psychotic. About three quarters of the prisoners get mentally damaged, a lot of them have paranoia, hallucinations, even catatonia. It becomes a very bad problem for many prisoners. And this is something, as I say, you can be pretty sure if you have any prolonged solitary confinement, it's going to hit a very large percentage of prisoners. It's a sure thing.

Slate: Some of the people you interviewed as part of your article, you said sometimes they are extracted from their cells five times a day.

Tapley: Well, that is kind of a record. I put that in because this one fellow that I interviewed had that happen to him. He sort of was the record holder in the Maine state prison. But these are common. These go on, on a daily basis in supermaxes all over the country. The idea is total control. That's what the solitary confinement is about.

But when these people, who may not be violent, and may not have really done anything to in any rational way deserve it, are taken out of their cell—they have to have a guard on either side, for example if they're just going to take a shower, a guard on either side. They have to have shackles on their ankles and they have handcuffs, and they're sort of goose-stepped down the corridor to the shower room. These are people who may be in prison for something like fraud or burglary and who may have no history of violence.

The biggest common denominator in supermax prisons is mental illness, people who can't follow the rules of the prison. It's a prison within a prison so they are put in the supermax. In the Maine state prison, for example, there are several people there who got themselves tattooed. And for one reason or another they were caught in the act and they're thrown into solitary confinement. It has become the way to deal with anything you don't like, if you are a guard or if you're a prison official.

Slate: A lot of the prisoners are considered the worst of the worst, but there is a tremendous percentage of mentally ill people. There are people who just are rebellious, and even though the percentage of political prisoners compared to the '60s and '70s is not as high, when you look at the people being held in solitary confinement in these supermax prison, quite a high percentage of them given the low percentage of them in relation to the overall prison population, quite a high percentage are in the supermax prisons and in forced isolation.

Tapley: You know, it's an interesting question, political prisoners. A lot of the people in supermax are there because they have been dissident in one way or another within the prison. They may have protested conditions in some fashion. They may have stood up for another prisoner. They may have in some way alienated the officials. So this is where they go. And in that sense they are political prisoners. The prisoner who turned me on to what was happening in the supermaxes was as his reward sent out of state to try to get him out of my clutches and out of the clutches of the rest of the news media and put into a supermax in Baltimore. And there was no reason. The guy never had any history whatsoever of violence or escape or anything else. It was simply that's the way they deal with it.

Slate: One of the things that was also brought out here, and as you talk about this, the idea that, again, so many of the prisoners in supermax and in isolation are actually mentally ill to begin with. There was a big scandal in California regarding the treatment of these mentally ill prisoners in these special management units. When they go for therapy, the ones that are allowed to go for therapy, find themselves sitting in a little boxed cage chained up, and their therapist is sitting across the room out of spitting distance and what not, and talking to them through this box. And if they have group therapy the guy is surrounded by a circle of boxes talking to prisoners chained in individual boxes. This is the kind of treatment that people get which is forced isolation even within forced isolation. It's just bizarre and barbaric.

Tapley: Well, think about it. How can you give therapy to people who are 99% of the time in a situation, solitary confinement, that's driving them crazy? So therapy becomes a fraudulent gesture. It becomes a bureaucratic fraud. In Maine, what they do is they have a mental worker go a couple times a week to the cell door, which is a solid steel cell door, of the supermax prisoner, and the mental health worker yells through the food slot—of course there's no privacy, which is kind on an important aspect of any psychological therapy—to the prisoner for a few minutes and he may or may not yell something back. So it's just absurd.

Slate: There's never a justification for torture and indeed people can say that the purpose of torture has more to do with establishing fear and establishing total control. That's true but there's actually something much more basic to it in terms of morality, I think.

Tapley: Well, yeah, and I think we all have to look at this. I think we're all complicit in this. I didn't know a thing about what was going on until five years ago when this prisoner through an intermediary got in touch with me. We have to ask why is it that some people are upset about Guantanamo but they're not upset about what's going on in the supermaxes, and that immediately takes you to the question of why are we engaged in the larger prison madness of putting so many people in prison for such long terms for in many cases non-violent crimes? We're the only country that does this, as I cited, the statistics are absolutely amazing. And the people who've looked at this, the scholars and activists who spent the most time on this question, including a lot of prisoners of course, they see racism and they see classism.

I've come to that conclusion. In Maine we don't have many minorities, for example, and most of the people in the prison therefore are white people. But they're all very poor, or nearly so, nearly all of them. We've got to look at how we're dealing with the people at the bottom in terms of the economic structure carefully, and if we do I think we'll see that we're dealing with a lot of them by putting them in prison. And then the prison within a prison for those people who one way or another can't deal with the rules of the prison, and as I've mentioned, they may be mentally ill, too. Those people are the people who get this incredible harshness.

And you know, it's such a complex issue. I mean we've had this harshness in a historical context for the past thirty years. And you have to look at the political atmosphere. You have to look at also what this country did in terms of basically tearing down the mental health structure but not putting a good community mental health system in its place, and so the prisons have become the de facto asylums. You have to look at the media, sensationalism about crime which a lot of opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of. You have to look at the war on drugs. About 20% of the people in prison are there because of that, and on and on. And of course when you develop this sizable prison industrial complex, if you will, and it's not just private prisons. That's just a small part of it. It has to do with the public system. Then you've got a lot of investment right there. So we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions. It's a complex issue, but at the same time you can come to some simple conclusions about it.

Slate: When you think about this, and the point you raised abut who is bearing the brunt of all this, and who's it being targeted against. When you put together what you were saying about when the supermaxes began, with the tie-in with the mushrooming of the prison population. When you think about that, the Reagan era, the war on drugs, when that began. Michelle Alexander stunningly documents how this mushrooming of the prison population to such a gigantic and mainly focused on Black people and then Latino people. But mainly when you look at it, the number of Black people forced into jail these days as routine. So you have whole sections of youth who think, you grow up expecting to do some time in jail. And then what happens in terms of this social control, this dehumanization. And what Michelle argues, it is part and parcel of the formation of a new Jim Crow within this country.

Tapley: Right, but what I'm saying is, it's basically an oppression of a class of people. And many of those people of course are Blacks and Latinos. But it's an oppression of the poor, I think basically. And you talked about how the conservative element in our political world have got the American people to accept. But one thing you should understand and that your listeners should understand is that this is all accepted by the liberals. Only recently have they started to become concerned about the prisons, at least in any numbers of them. The liberal politicians throughout the past thirty years have basically not uttered a peep.

Slate: I don't disagree with you, and I think it's extremely important for people to understand. And there needs to be some outrage, damn it! There really needs to be some outrage around this, and I just don't think people can sit back and allow this to go unspoken to.

Tapley: I think there actually is starting to be a larger consciousness of this. And obviously Bradley Manning, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, that's increasing the consciousness of what is torture and what the United States does. And there is more activism in terms of groups like the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which was only focused on U.S. torture outside the country, and now adopting supermax as a cause. A campaign against torture within this country is what they have adopted. So has the American Civil Liberties Union as well, and other groups. So there is a greater consciousness of this. In Maine we've had a bill in the legislature, which didn't succeed this first time around, but it's going to come around again, to limit solitary confinement to forty-five days, and not allow seriously mentally ill people to be in solitary confinement. Within the supermax prison in Maine, for example, the figure is 50% of the people there are officially classified as seriously mentally ill. So if that bill passed, it would make a large gesture toward emptying the supermax.

In Illinois there's also a big campaign against supermax imprisonment. And there have been some success stories brought about through litigation. For example, the ACLU took on the state of Mississippi, and they got Mississippi in a settlement of a lawsuit to reduce its supermax population considerably. In New York there have been some successes, too.

So this consciousness is increasing. There's more political activism. And despite the dark vision of this situation that I perhaps portrayed in our interview, I think there's some cause for optimism.

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