Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 13, 2009


Christopher Beam, Slate - Wherever the [Gitmo] detainees land, they're likely to encounter some of the less savory aspects of the U.S. prison system. It's something of a lose-lose situation: Either they get stuck in the harsh isolation of a maximum-security prison, or they get exposed to the dangers of less secure state and federal prisons.

Let's start with the supermaxes. (There is only one federal supermax prison, though several states have them, too.) There, detainees stay in 80-square-foot cells for 22½ hours a day. There are no windows except for a skylight outside the cell. For exercise, they get to spend an hour and a half in a cement room five days a week. According to a federal court ruling in 1995, "many, if not most, inmates in the [secure housing unit] experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation."

Some maximum-security facilities allow prisoners more freedom if they behave well. For example, in some maximum-security prisons in California, prisoners can leave their cells and read in a library. They can also watch TV or listen to the radio. Some even live two-to-a-cell and are allowed visits from family members.

The trade-off, of course, is that with more freedom comes higher risk. A 2007 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 4.5 percent of all state and federal inmates suffer some degree of sexual victimization. (Others put the estimate far higher.) The risk goes way up under certain conditions. When there is more than one inmate to a cell, says David Fathi of Human Rights Watch, "you worry much more about assault."


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