Within two days of his 2009 arrival at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ “Special Management Unit” at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA, William Thrower was beaten and stomped into unconsciousness by his gang member cellmate, with whom he was assigned to share a tiny, ancient cell, 24 hours a day. After a month in a coma, Thrower now suffers from “severe cognitive impairment,” that, according to a government neurologist requires his participation in basic functioning therapy. Nonetheless, Thrower was returned to an SMU program. His lawsuit was later dismissed because his allegations did not constitute an “atypical” hardship for a prisoner.
Thrower’s experience is not unique; the federal district courts are rife with similar lawsuits by prisoners confined in such programs, alleging inhumane conditions, murders, “gladiator” fights arranged by guards, and other atrocities generally attributed to societies less enlightened than ours. Yet the federal government’s use of “control units” like SMU has expanded exponentially in the last decade, as have the states. And while many correctional industry experts insist that such programs are necessary, one might ask at what cost to our national ideals of humane punishment and dignity for all members of our society do these programs exist.
It is well known that the United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate far higher than any other Western nation. More than two million men and women are detained in our prisons and jails at any one time, and we admit more than 1.3 million to such facilities each year.*1 It is perhaps not surprising that government officials and private prison industry corporations have in recent years looked for creative ways to store these men and women in a more manageable and cost-effective manner.
One way to achieve these goals is, of course, to simply lock prisoners in a cell, 24 hours a day. While the courts have generally mandated that it is unconstitutional to do so, they have allowed prison officials to subject prisoners to such treatment provided they are given an hour or so in an outdoor cage a few times a week. In 2005, the last year such figures were compiled, over 80,000 men and women were confined in such conditions.*2