Professor Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy has this post on this week’s Time magazine’s feature article on supermax prisons. Professor Berman quotes the Time piece:
Modern science has confirmed this, with electroencephalograms showing that after a few days in solitary, prisoners' brain waves shift toward a pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium. When sensory deprivation is added ... the breakdown is even worse.
What is notable here is that, once again, the popular press and even legal scholars misunderstand how to interpret neuroscience results. There are likely many times during the day when everyone’s brain waves would show a pattern of stupor and delirium. EEG’s reveal brain activity, but they cannot be used exclusively to diagnose. The implication in the Time piece is that supermax prisons are so horrendous that inmates invariably descend into madness. Time proffer’s of the EEG data seems to solidify this conclusion with the certainty of science. Yet, EEG waves “characteristic” of stupor should be accorded little weight as evidence of this claim. Brain waves similar to stupor can appear frequently during “normal life” outside of prison.
There is some evidence, however, that on-going sensory deprivation can lead to severe psychological distress as the Time piece continues:
As long ago as 1952, studies at Montreal's McGill University showed that when researchers eliminate sight, sound and, with the use of padded gloves, tactile stimulation, subjects can descend into a hallucinatory state in as little as 48 hours.
But there are two problems here:
1. supermax prisons do not eliminate sight, sound, and tactile stimulation;
2. supermax prisons were born out of a need to control very violent inmates; what is the alternative?
As someone who has worked in numerous prisons as a psychologist, I offer a few observations from my experience:
1. I have always been struck by the fact that in most jails and prisons it seems anarchy is but a moment’s step away. Profanity, overt verbal aggression, gangs, and a general sense of chaos permeates the institutions. How this becomes a house of corrections is beyond me. But what can the staff do?
2. There’s a lot of talk these days about how many inmates have mental illness. I disagree. It is true that there are some inmates with mental illness, but most have emotional problems, personality disorders, and a lack of maturity. These folks can probably be helped with psychotherapy, but the notion that they are ill is misplaced. Mild depression, insomnia, and anxiety are normative experiences while facing time in the big house.
3. What most inmates desperately need are good social peers. I think prison ministries are an excellent idea and have witnessed their positive outcomes. I’m perplexed at the tremendous opposition to them. Surely, these programs offer more than our current approach of GED’s-for-all plus $5.00 for bus fare.
Finally, we should never condone cruel treatment or conditions for any inmate, however heinous his crime. On the other hand, whether supermax prisons represent “torture” seems to me a bit far fetched.