Supermax Prison: Controlling the Most Dangerous Criminals

Supermax Prison: Controlling the Most Dangerous Criminals

by Larry L Franklin & Rakesh Chandra


Publisher History Publishing Company, LLC

Published in Law/Criminal Law, Nonfiction/Politics, Nonfiction

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Book Description

The Tamms supermax reduced violence, protected the staff and inmates, and provided the mental health needs of a unique population. But time eroded public confidence in a facility that imposed long-term solitary confinement years beyond acceptable practice.

While there are stories of unimaginable violence, sadness, and injustice, there are hues of happiness and hope. We present the good and bad, the certain and unimaginable.

Sample Chapter

“Prisons evolve, lose favor, and are born-again.”

It was a typical fall-like day in southern Illinois; farmland flanked by rolling hills; wildflowers, called weeds by most outsiders; and two correctional centers seemingly sprouted from an open field. Alexander County, Illinois’ poorest of the poor, needed jobs, and a prison was a commonplace substitution for a factory that would never come their way. A two hundred-and-fifty bed minimum-security facility stood along side this mother of all Illinois correctional centers, the five hundred bed Tamms supermax prison. On March 8, 1998, society gave birth to the seventy-three million dollar supermax, which closed fifteen years later in January 2013. There she stands, still strong, waiting for history to demand her services once again.

History has a propensity to repeat itself like a whippoorwill call in a southern Illinois night. Going back to the early 1700s, we can see how prisons evolve, lose favor, and are born-again. The English people of the 18th century preferred swift justice and a punishment to be remembered. Severe crimes led to hanging, while lesser offenses were met with public embarrassment – whipping, branding, mutilation, and other such punishments. Sentences were without a specific duration and were completed in a jailhouse cell.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, population growth and increased criminal activity triggered a belief that large prisons could better control the growing numbers. Prison advocates lobbied for solitary confinement and hard labor as reform strategies. And it followed, that complete isolation, obedience, and hard work would put the fear of God in any sorry soul. Some advocates even imagined that the transformed prisoners would become role models for the general public, an unfulfilled fantasy.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, completed in 1836, became an example of modern prison architecture. State of the art, that’s what they called it. Modern amenities – flush toilets, central heating, showers, and high ceilings – had never been seen in a prison before. But the modernized facility continued the practice of solitary confinement – twenty-four hours per day isolation, meals and work to be completed in their cells. Thirty-foot high walls circled the prison grounds; cellblocks radiated from a central hub, like spokes on an oversized wagon wheel; and rifle guards had easy targets from the top of the central hub. Prison officials boasted of the chilling effect that the ice-cold structure would have on anyone contemplating criminal activity. “The exterior of a solitary prison should exhibit as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters.”

Charles Williams, an eighteen-year old man, was the first inmate housed in the Eastern State Penitentiary. Number one, that’s what they called him throughout his two-year sentence in solitary confinement. Williams was a burglar, farmer by trade, convicted for stealing a twenty-dollar watch, a three-dollar gold seal, and one gold key. The warden, accompanied by a cluster of guards, celebrated the prison’s opening by greeting prisoner number one at the concrete gate. A black hood was placed over Williams’ head, followed by a walk to his prison cell. How frightening that must have been for the teenager, barely a man, to be led through darkness to his solitary hell. Prisoner number one was forbidden to see or speak to another human being, except for the prison guards.

The Quakers were the driving force behind the construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary, and operated on the belief that isolation makes the mind more malleable. “His mind can only operate itself; generally, but a few hours elapse before he petitions for something to do, and for a Bible. No instance has occurred, in which such a petition has been delayed beyond a day or two.”

In its 142 years of existence, the Eastern State Penitentiary holds endless stories of torture and torment. The “Water Bath” is one. An inmate was dunked in water then hung on a wall in the winter until ice formed on his skin. Perhaps the “Mad Chair” is more to your liking. The inmate was bound so tightly that circulation was cut off, requiring the occasional amputation of a limb. And then there is always “The Hole,” where the inmate was placed in a dank underground hole with no lights, human contact, exercise or toilet, and only a token amount of food and water. But in the late 1880s the pendulum inched the other way. Charles Dickens, English writer and prison reform advocate, shocked at the sensory-deprived, pale-faced inmates with “wild eyes,” accused prisons of performing a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain.”

True prison reform, called the Progressive Era by some, came about in the early 1900s. Educators and intellectuals led the movement, believing that science – social work and psychiatry -- could change prisoner behavior. The terms correctional institutions/correctional systems replaced the early terminology of prison and penitentiary. Added to the correctional system was the availability of modern-day opportunities such as probation, parole, juvenile justice, training programs, individual and group therapy, behavior modification, vocational training, work release, and college education courses, creating a new era. But as hard as they tried, effective rehabilitation remained rare, in part because of poorly trained staff, and lack of resources and institutional commitment.

The 1970s and 80s were met with a return to yesterdays. The “new” idea was to “promote justice,” not rehabilitation. Prisons should be a painful experience, an objective that has been in vogue for several decades. Political agendas have always fed the prevailing winds that propelled the penal practice of the day. The Nixon administration and the Bureau of Prisons entertained a philosophy of re-educate and isolate. President Ronald Reagan called for Federal corrections budget reductions and the elimination of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (temporarily saved by Congress); a de-emphasis on prison conditions lawsuits at the Justice Department; a reduction of prison standards; increase in the use of pretrial detention; and mandatory prison terms for crimes committed with guns. Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, continued a like-minded approach: construction of new prisons, harsher sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, and determinant sentencing. And the Clinton administration of the 1990s introduced “three strikes and you’re out.” Any politician was destined for failure if he/she projected anything but “tough on crime.”

Many believe that the seeds for the first supermax prison were sowed in the Marion Federal Penitentiary on October 22, 1983. Some two years earlier, so the story goes, Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain, members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, strangled fellow inmate Robert Chappelle. Silverstein and Fountain then sought out Raymond “Cadillac” Smith, who planned to avenge the death of his friend, Chappelle. Together, they stabbed, twisted, and turned a prison-made shank into Smith’s body, some sixty-seven times in all, dragging his dead body up and down the prison tier for other inmates to see. No one forgot that sight.

Thomas Silverstein believed that officer Merle Clutts was harassing him for the crimes he had committed at the Marion prison, so he spent the next two years plotting Clutts’ murder. On October 22, 1983 a shackled and guarded Silverstein was released from his cell for his weekly shower. While in transit, another prisoner slipped Silverstein a shank and handcuff key. After freeing his hands, Silverstein stabbed Clutts some forty times. Several hours later, Clayton Fountain used a similar tactic to kill Robert Hoffman, a second prison guard.

Outrage blew hard, fast, and without direction that day, followed by an immediate lockdown that lasted for twenty-three years. A former Marion correctional officer later reflected on the inmate beatings as the worst he had ever seen. Physical and psychological dominance and complete isolation became the daily regiment. Continuous confinement was interrupted by a few precious minutes of exercise, as each inmate stood in front of a cell no larger than a walk-in closet. For some, the image of being buried alive prevailed. Others, a lucky few, appreciated the meditative silence in an on-going quiet. The Marion Federal Penitentiary came out of lockdown in 2006 when the prison was downgraded to a medium-security facility. The whims of society continue as prisons evolve, lose favor, and are born-again.

Clayton Fountain, isolated and never allowed to see the light of day, spent the rest of his life in a Missouri prison. He died in 2004. Thomas Silverstein is now kept at the ADX Florence Supermax prison in Colorado. Silverstein has been in solitary confinement since 1983, longer that any other prisoner in the federal system. One would expect Silverstein to be a babbling idiot, or at the very least, a “crazy man.” But to hear a July 29, 2013 taped interview between journalist, Pete Earley, and Thomas Silverstein, you would likely be surprised. Silverstein came across as a sane person, able to engage in an intelligent conversation. While it is possible to find solace in isolation, thirty-two years of solitary confinement is not good for the human psyche.

That horrific day, October 22, 1983, when the murder of two prison guards and two inmates were murdered in Marion, will forever be etched in the minds of the correctional community – wardens, guards, even inmates. It has been recognized as the day that the supermax prison was born. The number in the United States is difficult to determine. There is the “stand alone” supermax, and the supermax addition connected to an existing correctional facility. It has been estimated that the “stand alone” is located in some thirty-five states, while other states maintain an add-on facility. The exact numbers change due to the inconsistent definitions of a supermax, and the reluctance for a state to announce ownership of one, given that publicity draws the attention of human-right groups. Multiple euphemisms used in place of supermax prison – administrative control units, special/security handling units (SHU), and control handling units (CHU) – add to the confusion.

There are currently some 1.3 million convicted inmates in the state prisons, 200,000 in federal, 300,000 in local jails with an additional 400,000 waiting trial. Approximately 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners, a number just south of two percent, currently reside in facilities that meet some definition of a supermax.

The ADX Florence is sometimes called the Colorado Supermax, the Florence ADMAX, or the Alcatraz of the Rockies. We will refer to the only federal supermax as ADX Florence. Built in 1994, ADX Florence was intended to house political criminals, terrorists, spies, and other inmates who pose a serious threat to correctional institutions or other inmates. Some of the more famous inmates are Richard Reid, the shoe bomber serving a life sentence; Ramz Yousef, the 1993 bomber of World Trade Center serving a life sentence; Zacarias Moussaoui, 9-11 hijacker serving a life sentence; Ted Kaczynski, serial bomber serving eight life sentences; Terry Nichols, Oklahoma bombing serving one hundred sixty one life sentences; and Thomas Silverstein.

The state supermax prisons grew rapidly in the 1990s and closely followed the blueprint established by the ADX Florence. The inmate is placed in a single cell, approximately 7 foot x 12 foot, with barely room to turn around, let alone walk in a complete circle. There is the immovable, poured concrete bed, desk, and stool; the combination toilet/sink and interior shower, which render it unnecessary for the prisoner to ever be removed from his cell. Recessed lights continually hide night from day, day from night, and provide an annoying florescent hum that challenges the sanest of the sane. Each cell is surveyed by video cameras twenty-four hours each day.

Food is pushed through a narrow slot in the door. Any conversation with a prison guard or a psychologist, who speaks with the inmate a few minutes every thirty days, is held through a steel-mesh door. There is little chance of an inmate ever touching another human during his incarceration. If he behaves, the inmate is allowed to spend one hour each day in a rectangular shaped concrete enclosure where he exercises or stands, staring at a sliver of sky leaking through a wire-mesh ceiling.


Excerpted from "Supermax Prison: Controlling the Most Dangerous Criminals" by Larry L Franklin & Rakesh Chandra. Copyright © 2017 by Larry L Franklin & Rakesh Chandra. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Larry L Franklin & Rakesh Chandra

Larry L Franklin & Rakesh Chandra

Larry L Franklin holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University. He performed in the U.S. Navy Band located in Washington, D.C. from 1967 to 1971. From 1972 to 1975, he taught music at Southern Illinois University. In 1976, he completed requirements for a certified financial planner designation and maintained a successful investment business until 2007 when he retired to devote his energies to writing. In 2003, he received an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. Franklin is the author of “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory,” published by Xlibris; “The Rita Nitz Story: A Life without Parole,” published by Southern Illinois University Press; “Cherry Blossoms & Barron Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell,” published by Chipmunka Publishing Company; “Supermax Prison: Controlling the most dangerous criminals,” published by History Publishing Company; and "Dark Days in Chicago: The Rehabilitation of an Urban Street Terrorist," published by History Publishing Company.

View full Profile of Larry L Franklin & Rakesh Chandra

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