National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons -- West
PO Box 2218
Berkeley CA 94702
Phone: 415/452-3359

November, 1997

Control Units

Shut Them Down!

``I seen them carry one inmate down the corridor with a guard on each leg and one on each arm. The assistant warden comes down the hall and grabs the inmate's testicles and starts yanking on them, saying, 'Who's doing it to who now, boy?' Well that was a signal for every guard in the place to do whatever the hell he wanted. I can't describe it to you--I never seen beatings like that. At least fifty guys got it, maybe more.'' (Lassiter, 1990: 76)

What is a Control Unit Prison?

A control unit prison is a prison or part of a prison that is in a state of permanent lockdown, a usually-temporary condition used to control and suppress disruptions within a prison by severly restricting prisoners' rights. In theory, control units warehouse the "worst of the worst", the most violent prisoners who threaten the security of guards and other prisoners. This once temporary condition has been increasingly adopted as the new model for US prisons.

Before 1963, Alcatraz prison in California supposedly housed the most dangerous prisoners in the US. In 1963, the federal prison in Marion, Illinois took its place as a more modern, more technologically advanced maximum security prison. In 1978, Marion became the highest security prison in the US. It also became the most violent prison. Marion became the first control unit in 1983 when two prison guards were killed and Marion was put into permanent "lockdown". Marion has been the model for prisons across the country, which are rapidly becoming more and more repressive in the hopes of subduing any and all resistance to unjust treatment. Now more than 30 state prison systems, as well as the federal system, have some form of control unit.

More than simply fulfilling "security needs," control units employ sophisticated methods of behavior modification which not only controls violence but any form of resistance at all. The creation of control units has not reduced the level of violence within general prison populations. In fact, assaults on prison staff nationwide rose from 175 in 1991 to 906 to 1993 (Prendergast).

Control Units are used to isolate and punish those people who present a threat to the established power; for example, those who have filed lawsuits against prison officials, participated in work stoppages, or actively pursued their religious and/or political beliefs. In certain cases, political prisoners, such as American Indian Movement organizer Leonard Peltier and Black Liberation Army member Sekou Odinga, are sent to Control Units directly from trial, thereby disproving the claim that prisoners in Control Units have earned their punishment by their own violence or disruption once in prison.

Conditions Inside Control Unit Prisons

Long term isolation and sensory deprivation Prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 22-23 hours a day, in cells that are usually 6 feet by 8 feet. Forced idleness Prisoners are denied standard vocational, educational, and recreational activities, including access to law libraries. Excessive restraint Beatings, cell extractions and "hog tying" are widespread. Prison guards have testified to shackling prisoners to their beds and spraying them with high pressure fire-hoses. This is usually billed as punishment for those who "misbehave"; yet what is called "misbehavior" is arbitrarily decided by the guard on duty (and has been known to include refusing to make beds, or complaining about clogged and overflowing toilets). Toxic environment Prisons are often built near environmental hazards. Prisoners have gotten cancer and lead poisoning from contaminated water. At least one control unit is in an area with dangerously high levels of uranium radiation. Limited human contact Physical contact is prohibited during visits. Phone calls for prisoners generally cannot exceed ten minutes a month. No congregate dining, exercise, or religious services are permitted. In Florence, prisoners are shuffled through remote-controlled electronic doors to their destination, without ever seeing another human being. Human rights violations There are many accounts of human rights violations and abuses in Control Units, including denial of medical care to injured and/or sick prisoners (including diabetics and epileptics), refrigerated cells during winter months, arbitrary beatings, psychological abuse of mentally unstable prisoners, illegal censorship of mail, extended isolation and indoor confinement, denial of access to educational programs, and administrative (rather than judicial) decisions about punishment for "misbehaved" prisoners. There is no evidence that such abuse decreases violence within the overall prison system. A guard stated: "the public is fooled if they believe placing a man in supermax will have a positive effect on the offender" (Schroeder).

Marianna, Florida: an article about the women's control unit, by Silvia Baraldini, Marilyn Buck, Susan Rosenberg, and Laura Whitehorn

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