A chilling portrait of America’s “securest and most punitive” prisons.
Opened in 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison, located in rural Crescent City, California, contains 1,055 windowless concrete isolation cells measuring 8 by 10 feet and filled with “stale air and fluorescent light.” By 2010, more than 500 prisoners had lived there for more than 10 years; 78 have been isolated for more than two decades. With no visitors or human contact for 23 hours per day, such inmates face “the tedium, the psychological trauma, the existential terror” of indefinite long-term isolation. Human rights groups call the practice torture. In this deeply researched book, Reiter (Law/Univ. of California, Irvine; co-editor: Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement, 2015) tells the full story of Pelican Bay and opens a window on the rise in recent decades of Supermax prisons throughout the U.S., which now house some 20,000 prisoners deemed the “worst of the worst” criminals by prison officials. Based on her doctoral dissertation, Reiter’s book relates the history of Supermaxes, which began as “prison officials’ response to the radical civil rights movement of the 1970s.” Built quietly in out-of-the-way places at prison administrators’ discretion, the facilities were considered a new tool for controlling dangerous prisoners like George Jackson, the black activist and author who was shot to death by guards in San Quentin Prison. Reiter captures the ceaseless misery of daily life at Pelican Bay, where suicide is common and survivors adhere to rigid routines. Despite protests and hearings, reforms have only placed limits on who can be placed in solitary. The author calls the “worst of the worst” criteria a myth, with little distinction made between bad and insane inmates. Failing to end prison violence, she writes, Supermaxes have succeeded only in silencing radicals. Her stories of the psychological impact of isolation—and the experiences of released Supermax prisoners—are both disturbing and moving.
Essential reading in the ongoing national re-examination of mass incarceration.