When They Get Out

How prisons, established to fight crime, produce crime.

POPULAR perceptions about crime have blurred the boundaries between fact and politically expedient myth. The myth is that the United States is besieged, on a scale never before encountered, by a pathologically criminal underclass. The fact is that we're not. After spiraling upward during the drug wars, murder rates began falling in the mid-1990s; they are lower today than they were more than twenty years ago. In some cities the murder rate in the late twentieth century is actually lower than it was in the nineteenth century. Nonviolent property-crime rates are in general lower in the United States today than in Great Britain, and are comparable to those in many European countries.

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The Prison-Industrial Complex (December 1998)
Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. By Eric Schlosser

Nevertheless, horror stories have led to calls for longer prison sentences, for the abolition of parole, and for the increasingly punitive treatment of prisoners. The politics of opinion-poll populism has encouraged elected and corrections officials to build isolation units, put more prisons on "lockdown" status (in which prisoners are kept in their cells about twenty-three hours a day), abolish grants that allowed prisoners to study toward diplomas and degrees, and generally make life inside as miserable as possible. Marc Mauer, the assistant director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., says, "Fifty years ago rehabilitation was a primary goal of the system." Nowadays it's not. "The situation we're in now is completely unprecedented," Mauer says. "The number going through the system dwarfs that in any other period in U.S. history and virtually in any other country as well." In 1986, according to figures published in the Survey of State Prison Inmates (1991), 175,662 people were serving sentences of more than ten years; five years later 306,006 were serving such sentences. People haven't become more antisocial; their infractions and bad habits are just being punished more ruthlessly. Crime, however, is a complex issue, and responses to it that might instinctively seem sensible, or simply satisfying, may prove deeply counterproductive. Locking ever more people away will in the long run increase the number of Robert Scullys in our midst.

Robert Scully grew up near San Diego, in the affluent town of Ocean Beach. From a very early age he used drugs, and before he was a teenager, he had been on the streets and then in juvenile facilities run by the California Youth Authority. From heroin use and dealing he moved to robbery; by the time he was twenty-two, in the early 1980s, he was in San Quentin. In prison Scully degenerated, eventually using a contraband hacksaw blade to escape from his cell and attacking another inmate with a homemade knife.

At about the same time, California began opening what it called maximum-security facilities—dumping grounds for troublesome inmates. Scully wound up in solitary confinement in a prison named Corcoran. The guards there, as recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, are alleged to have taken it upon themselves to organize gladiatorial combat among prisoners in the exercise yard; they would sometimes break up the battles by shooting into crowds of prisoners. Scully was shot twice. He was placed in a "security housing unit" cell, where for close to twenty-three hours a day he was deprived of all human interaction. In 1990, soon after the "supermax" prison at Pelican Bay had opened in the redwood forests northeast of the old Victorian timber town of Crescent City, Scully was moved again, into a tiny bare cell with a perforated sheet-metal door and a hatch through which his food was served. In the supermax even exercise was solitary. He stayed there four years. At the time of his release, in 1994, he had spent the previous nine years in isolation. A month later he was arrested for violating parole by consorting with an armed acquaintance, and went straight back to Pelican Bay.

Scully re-emerged on March 24, 1995, by now a human time bomb. He was picked up by Brenda Moore, the girlfriend of a fellow inmate, and they began driving south, along Highway 101, toward San Diego, where Scully was supposed to check in with his parole officer. They never made it. Five days later they arrived in Sebastopol, a town an hour north of San Francisco. There, late at night, they loitered around a restaurant until the owner, fearing a robbery, called the police. The pair drove off to a nearby parking lot. Soon after, as they sat in their truck, Deputy Sheriff Frank Trejo, a middle-aged grandfather looking forward to his retirement, pulled into the lot.

Trejo asked to see the woman's license, and as she fumbled for it, according to investigators, he suddenly found a sawed-off shotgun pointing at his face. He was made to back up until he was between the two vehicles and get on his knees, and Scully shot him in the forehead. Scully and Moore ran across a field, broke into a house, and took a family hostage. The next afternoon, with police surrounding the area, Scully negotiated his surrender.

Robert Scully evolved into a murderer while housed in Pelican Bay. There he experienced some of the harshest confinement conditions known in the democratic world. Highly disturbed to start with, he was kept in a sensory-deprivation box for years on end. Psychologists and psychiatrists called in by his defense team believe that he simply lost the ability to think through the consequences of his actions. He became a creature of brutal and obsessive impulse. At Scully's trial Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has spent much of his career studying the effects of isolation on prisoners, and who has testified in class-action lawsuits against departments of corrections across the country, argued that sensory deprivation and social isolation had caused Scully to regress until he was a violent animal capable only of acting on instinct, with no ability to plan beyond the moment. His incarceration had created what Grassian termed "a tremendous tunnel vision." Pelican Bay Chief Deputy Warden Joe McGrath estimates that every month thirty-five inmates are, like Scully, released from isolation directly back into the community.

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Sasha Abramsky grew up in London and lives in New York. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, New York, and the London Independent.

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