WASHINGTON — Imagine being locked alone in a small, bare cell for 23 hours a day. Your meals are slid through a slot in the metal door. You cannot see or talk to another human being. You cannot see out the window.
You cannot make telephone calls or have direct contact with visitors. When you do briefly leave your cell for showers or solitary exercise, you must strip and permit a visual search of your body, including bending over and spreading your buttocks. Your legs are shackled, your arms are cuffed and you are led by two guards, one of whom presses an electric stun gun against your body at all times.
Such conditions are typical in so-called "supermaximum security prisons"--the hottest trend in the U.S. prison system--which now house at least 20,000 inmates.
Popular with politicians, supermax prisons are under increasing scrutiny in lawsuits and official investigations probing persistent allegations of serious human rights excesses.
Supermax prisons are designed for what corrections officials call the "worst of the worst"--prisoners so violent, so disruptive, so incorrigible that they cannot be kept in regular custody. Politicians who want to be seen as tough on crime have championed the construction of such facilities, which cost considerably more to build and operate than regular prisons.
But human rights organizations and a growing number of independent experts say many of those locked up are not violent or dangerous criminals but seriously mentally ill individuals.
Sometimes, nonviolent offenders who have never caused trouble can get shunted into supermax facilities because it would be embarrassing to the authorities, having constructed such expensive prisons, to leave them half empty.
A report by Human Rights Watch said, "The conditions of confinement impose pointless suffering and humiliation. The absence of normal human interaction, of reasonable mental stimulus, of almost anything that makes life bearable, is emotionally, physically and psychologically destructive."
The Justice Department is investigating conditions in Virginia supermaxes after two prisoners transferred from Connecticut died under suspicious circumstances.
One, a young drug offender, committed suicide seven months before his release date. The other, a diabetic, went into convulsions after allegedly being denied his medication. Guards reacted by firing their stun guns at him, and he later died.
The Virginia Department of Corrections said an investigation found that the firing of the stun guns had nothing to do with his death and the guards had acted properly.
In another lawsuit, 108 prisoners from New Mexico who were sent to the Wallens Ridge supermax in Virginia alleged they were systematically beaten, shocked with stun guns and terrorized by guards who taunted them with racial epithets. The FBI was looking into these allegations.
A Virginia spokesman declined to respond but said Corrections Commissioner Ron Angelone would be willing to do so in an interview at some unspecified time in the future.
In June 2000 Angelone testified before a Virginia commission, "I'm a little angry with all of this. This is the same garbage that I heard from New Mexico--lies from convicted felons who don't like being locked up in tough prisons."
He said that since Virginia opened its two supermaxes, assaults on staff and other inmates have dropped by nearly half in the state's other prisons.
In Illinois, four prisoners at the Tamms supermax who say they are seriously mentally ill have brought a class action lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment through "sensory deprivation based on near-total isolation."
One inmate, Ashoor Rasho, became so desperate and disturbed that, according to the court complaint, "on Aug. 20, 1998, with his arms already infected from self-inflicted wounds, Mr. Rasho again cut his arm and began eating small pieces of his own flesh in front of a correctional officer."
The officer allegedly ignored the medical emergency and also ignored Rasho's plea to speak to someone from the mental health unit. Rasho was eventually stitched up and returned to the same cell, where he cut himself again, pulled his stitches out and lost more than half a pint of blood.
A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections said he would be eager to respond to written questions. A week after they were submitted, he had not done so.
In Ohio the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal civil rights action citing conditions that led to at least three inmate suicides in the Youngstown supermax, where psychotherapy is conducted with prisoners chained to a pole.
The Ohio Corrections Department says those in Youngstown are "the predators, the guys who have attacked inmates or guards, the people who need to be separated from the rest of the system."
Chase Riveland, who headed the Washington state prison system for 11 years and Colorado's for four years, said he was extremely concerned at the proliferation of supermax prisons.
"We don't know what we're doing to these people and what they will do to us when they return to their communities, which most of them eventually will do," he said.
Indiana State University criminologist Robert Huckabee, who conducted a study of supermaxes for the state of Indiana, said there had been little scientific study of the long-term effects of such incarceration on inmates.
While generally defending the use of supermaxes for extremely dangerous or disruptive prisoners, Huckabee said the heavy presence of the mentally ill was an "issue of concern."
"If we don't want mentally ill people in our prisons, we need to ask our judges to stop sending them and our legislatures to provide the money for other facilities," he said.