Back to News & Commentary

When the "Worst of the Worst" Describes the Prison, Not the Prisoners

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
Share This Page
June 7, 2010

Less than a decade ago, Unit 32 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss., was one of the very worst prison facilities in the nation. As the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports:

The supermax unit at the State Penitentiary at Parchman once held 1,000 men from gang leaders to petty thieves to seriously mentally ill inmates whose howls could be heard day and night. Prisoners were kept in isolation 23 hours a day, often behind full metal doors in stifling cells with broken lights, yet violence was common between inmates and guards and among the inmates themselves.

But thanks to the efforts of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which eight years ago initiated litigation aimed at improving the grossly inhumane conditions that caused the infamous Unit 32 to be, in the words of NPP’s Associate Director Margaret Winter, “an incubator for violence and mental illness,” Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) officials have agreed to close the unit and transfer its entire population to other facilities over the course of the next six months. Prison officials will move all seriously mentally ill prisoners to the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, Miss., a facility that is uniquely able to house prisoners afflicted with psychiatric problems, and they have agreed to improve the levels of medical and mental health care provided in Unit 32 so long as any prisoners remain there.

The significance of this victory cannot be overstated. For years, the NPP has fought hard around the country against the use of so-called “supermax” prisons, draconian facilities in which prisoners are subjected to stark isolation and are under lockdown 24 hours a day. On Unit 32, prisoners were kept in cells where summer heat indexes reached 120 degrees, toilets were nonfunctional, the housing areas were routinely awash in sewage from broken plumbing and they were subjected day and night to the ravings of severely psychotic prisoners whose mental illnesses were left untreated. Purportedly created to house the very “worst of the worst,” “supermax” facilities, including those in Mississippi, invariably are used to detain a large percentage of people who do not need to be there — prisoners convicted of property or drug crimes, for example, who are sent there for behavioral problems but have no way of earning their way back out. Many of Unit 32’s prisoners were assigned there simply because they have HIV, are seriously mentally ill or are in protective custody.

Since the ACLU first filed suit in 2002, the changes inside Unit 32 provide the rest of the nation with what Winter calls “a model for prison reform.” MDOC developed programs in which prisoners could earn their way out of solitary confinement through good behavior. As a result, the prison population in solitary confinement has decreased from over 1,000 to 150, and incidents of violence have plummeted. But the decision by MDOC officials to shutter Unit 32 is a clear acknowledgement that no matter what kinds of improvements are made to conditions in these “supermax” facilities, it simply is not humane, cost-effective or in the best interest of public safety to house prisoners in perpetual lockdown and profound isolation.