“Lock It Down”: How Solitary Started in the U.S.

An inmate in segregation at the Maine state prison.

An inmate in segregation at the Maine state prison.

April 22, 2014

The modern use of solitary confinement in American prisons began with two murders.

On Oct. 22, 1983, two prison guards were killed by inmates at Illinois’ Marion State Penitentiary, which at the time, was the highest-security facility in the country. Marion was built to replace Alcatraz and intended to house the “worst of the worst.”

On that day, Thomas Silverstein, a convicted bank robber and member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood gang, stabbed guard Merle Clutts 40 times, killing him. Silverstein had spent months plotting the murder, because he felt Clutts had been harassing him. A short while later, in a separate incident, fellow gang member Clayton Fountain killed another guard, Robert Hoffman.

The killings shook the corrections community says Gary Henman, who was a warden in a neighboring penitentiary in Terra Haute, Ind. at the time.  Three years later he would become the warden at Marion.

As Henman explains, after the killings, Marion prison officials put the institution in an unprecedented lockdown.

Under the lockdown inmates were kept in their roughly 7×9 foot cells for nearly 23 hours each day. Microwaved meals were pushed through a slot in the cell door. Physical contact, even with visitors, was prohibited.  When they did leave their cells, inmates were shackled in leg irons and handcuffs, with a black box over the cuffs to keep them from picking the locks. The lockdown would last for 23 years.

The moves were intended to protect the staff from the inmates and the inmates from each other.

Henman, who became warden in 1986, says his philosophy at Marion was that “It only takes one rotten apple to spoil a barrel.” He also says the system protected the most vulnerable inmates from predators in the prison.

Henman, who has a background in social work, said he got into corrections because he wanted to help rehabilitate prisoners — something that couldn’t happen under a total lockdown. So once he arrived at Marion, he began looking at ways to modify the restrictions — gradually, at first — for those inmates who posed less of a threat. His program became known as the “Marion model.”

The Marion model was a behavior-modification plan that gave inmates more privileges as they progressed. Among the goals: ensure prisoners have limited contact with guards and other inmates, and to make it nearly impossible for them to escape.

When they first arrive, inmates are locked down entirely, and then gradually earn additional privileges if they follow the rules.

From the beginning of the lockdown, prison-rights groups blasted the conditions at Marion, including the long periods of segregation and the lack of human contact. While Henman was warden, a group of inmates filed a class-action lawsuit arguing that the facility violated their constitutional rights.

“What Marion is about is total control — physical and psychological,” Nancy Horgan, an attorney for the inmates, told the Associated Press in 1987. “It’s punishment for the sake of punishment. It tends to make prisoners crazy, violent or depressed. We say no one — even if they are the worst prisoners in the world — should be treated like this. It’s dangerous.”

Henman, then as now, defended the system.

The government argued that by confining the most dangerous and recalcitrant inmates in one institution — Marion — other high-security facilities could have a more lax security structure.

The courts agreed, and in 1988, a federal appeals court upheld the lockdown.

”The whole here is depressing in the extreme, but we are not persuaded that any relaxation in the controls instituted in the fall of 1983 is constitutionally required, given the extraordinary security problems at the prison,” the appeals court wrote in its decision. “The controls are a unitary and integrated system for dealing with the nation’s least corrigible inmates; piecemeal dismantling would destroy the system’s rationale and impair its efficiency.”

Henman maintains that locking down dangerous inmates is the most effective way to modify their behavior.

The Marion model would serve as a template for new American supermaxes built across the country. Henman consulted on the design of the the country’s most secure facility, the supermax in Florence, Colo. That facility today houses some of the country’s most notorious prisoners, including Ted Kaczynski, the so-called “Unabomber,” and Richard Reid, known as the “shoe bomber.”

A “Noble Experiment”: How Solitary Came to America

In the late 18th century, the Quakers, a pacifist religious group in Pennsylvania, were looking for a way to rehabilitate criminals instead of resorting to the violence of the whip or the gallows. In 1787, they began to impose sentences of solitary confinement in an experiment at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia.

“There was a belief that you could put a prisoner in his solitary cell, freed from the evil influences of modern society,” said Stuart Grassian, a clinical psychiatrist who has studied the long-term impact of isolation in prison. “[A]nd they would become like a monk in a monastic cell, free to come close to God and to their own inner being, and they would naturally heal from the evils of the outside society. … It was a noble experiment that was an absolute catastrophe.”

Solitary confinement at the time was considered more humane than other practices, and it spread to institutions in the northeastern U.S., including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and New York state, as well as several countries in Europe.

But evidence began to accumulate that showed that solitary confinement was detrimental to inmates.  Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumount, who came from France to investigate the U.S. penitentiary system in 1831, wrote:

Nowhere was this system of imprisonment crowned with the hoped-for success. In general it was ruinous to the public treasury; it never effected the reformation of the prisoners.

In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.

The courts, too, began to turn against the use of solitary. A landmark 1890 Supreme Court case centered around James Medley, who’d been convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to die by hanging — after spending 45 days in solitary confinement. Medley’s lawyers took his case to the Supreme Court, arguing the extra sentence of isolation was inhumane.

In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed, saying the “additional punishment” of Medley’s solitary sentence was “of the most important and painful character” and violated the Constitution. It also noted that the American experiment with solitary confinement hadn’t worked.

A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.

Medley was ordered released. He was never punished for his crime.

After the ruling, the use of solitary as a corrective measure declined. From then on, isolation would be used largely to punish offenders.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

Michelle Mizner

Michelle Mizner, Series Producer & Editor, FRONTLINE



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