How Mississippi Opened, Then Closed, Its Most Notorious Prison Wing

by Sara Mayeux

As always, Atul Gawande had some interesting thoughts in his interview with Democracy Now this week. His assessments of healthcare reform and the hubbub over "death panels" (shockingly, Sarah Palin seems to have had this phrase exactly wrong: it turns out that end-of-life counseling can actually lengthen life for the terminally ill!) are, of course, well worth hearing. But I want to springboard here off of Gawande's work on solitary confinement, which he also touches upon in this most recent DN interview.

Often I read magazine articles that I enjoy immensely. Gawande's 2009 article on whether solitary confinement is torture falls into a different category: magazine articles that, in my ideal world, everyone would be required to read. Certainly everyone who has any sort of policy influence. The article has continued to ricochet around the blogosphere since it came out almost two years ago, and I hope it continues to do so for a long time. When you're done reading (or re-reading) Gawande's article, bookmark Solitary Watch, an outstanding blog that will keep you updated on the roughly 100,000 Americans that our nation's prisons hold in some form of solitary at any given time.

As Gawande notes in the article, the number of inmates in solitary varies wildly by state, from only a handful in some states to thousands in others—to a degree that doesn't seem easily explicable by demographics. The ACLU's David Fathi has suggested that some states have so many people in lockdown simply because they built very large supermax wings during the 1990s prison construction boom, and then needed to fill them. If there weren't enough genuinely uncontrollably violent inmates to go around, they turned instead to folks who'd violated minor prison rules, folks who needed protective custody, and all too often, folks with mental illnesses. People with a previous history of mental illness are also most likely to become psychotic under conditions of extreme isolation.

So what is to be done? I know this blog has spent some bandwidth on the antics of Mississippi's governor, and as a Georgia native descended from Louisianans, I am well aware of Mississippi's rhetorical utility across the South as the state that's always just a little bit worse. But if you are looking for a positive model of how to shut down a brutal supermax prison, then you should look no further than Mississippi. 

Here's the story in a nutshell: In the 1980s and '90s, Mississippi got tough on crime: building new prison beds and passing tough sentencing laws sure to keep them filled. The state even hired a criminal justice consultant to design a diagnostic tool for precisely determining who should be kept in its brand-new, 1,000-bed supermax wing, Unit 32. (Before Unit 32 was built, Mississippi had only had 56 "lockdown" cells.) Then things went awry:

A good correctional classification system allows inmates to move from one custody level to another based on behavior. Inmates who follow the rules in a maximum-security facility might move to a medium-security prison. Those who behave poorly might move in the opposite direction. That was how a classification system was supposed to work. But something seemingly went wrong at Unit 32. No one appeared to leave.

To understand why, the ACLU turned to JFA Institute founder James Austin. It was a good choice: Austin's firm designed Mississippi's classification system. When [the ACLU's Margaret] Winter sent him the reports she collected as part of the discovery process, Austin was stunned. MDOC staff members were misusing the forms that Austin and a colleague developed a decade earlier; they were systematically overscoring inmates. As a result, inmates who had never misbehaved in the system or who needed protective custody, not punishment, were being sent to Unit 32. By Austin's reckoning, only about 20 percent of the inmates at Unit 32 were actually supposed to be there. Some 800 inmates had been swept into Mississippi's most notorious maximum-security prison due to a bureaucratic snafu.

Moreover, conditions in Unit 32 were barbaric: incessant howling, violence among inmates and between inmates and guards, 130-degree heat, stifling stenches and filth, mosquito infestations, flooding toilet water.

Unlike some stories that take place in Mississippi, this one has a happy ending. In response to ACLU pressure, and in light of Austin's findings, Mississippi agreed to shut down Unit 32 last year. Its 1,000 inmates were moved to other facilities, including to mental health facilities as appropriate. Today Unit 32 is no longer. As Solitary Watch wrote at the time:

None of this means that all is well in the Mississippi prison system—far from it. The state's prisoners—including, no doubt, many of those moved out of Unit 32—still suffer from inadequate health care, overcrowding, and a host of other problems. But it seems like a significant victory, especially when it comes to challenging the excessive, arbitrary, and inhumane use of solitary confinement.