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Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Lorna Rhodes still remembers her first visit to a Washington State prison in 1993. Rhodes, a medical anthropologist in the UW Department of Anthropology, was touring the facility as part of a team embarking on a collaboration with the state’s Department of Corrections.

“Our tour took us to the outer gate of the prison’s ‘supermaximum’ or ‘control’ unit,” she recalls. “We stood awkwardly in front of the double gates, able to see nothing more than an empty hallway and the edge of a heavy steel door. We had little idea what lay beyond, and we were clearly to be allowed no further.”

Lorna Rhodes

"We’re basically using jails and prisons as a substitute for the state psychiatric hospitals,” says Lorna Rhodes. “This is a huge problem for the Department of Corrections." Media credit: Mary Levin

Rhodes was eventually able to enter several maximum security, or “supermax,” units through the Correctional Mental Health Collaboration—a project based in the School of Nursing, led by David Allen—and later on her own. She had the opportunity to conduct ethnographic research, interviewing and observing prisoners and staff. She shares her observations in Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison, to be published this year by the University of California Press.

Rhodes’ book explores the challenges faced by prisoners and prison staff, describing what she calls “daily assertions of authority and resistance.” She tells of prison officers who struggle to do their work without “losing their souls.” She describes prisoners who express their frustration by injuring themselves or throwing bodily waste. She describes disagreements between officers and mental health professionals about the prisoners’ mental health.

“A lot of studies of the correctional system have focused on inmates or those working in the prison or the management side of it without linking them together,” says Rhodes. “I’m really interested in how they intersect.”

One theme in Rhodes’ study is the situation of mentally ill prisoners. Since the closure of public psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s and early 1980s, many people who would have been hospitalized have ended up in prison instead. In some cases, prisoners whose mental state makes it difficult for them to understand or follow prison rules are confined in supermax units as a result of their behavior.

Rhodes notes that although it is difficult to arrive at exact figures, perhaps 15 to 25 percent of the prisoners in those units can be considered mentally ill. “We’re basically using jails and prisons as a substitute for the state psychiatric hospitals,” says Rhodes. “This is a huge problem for the Department of Corrections. Prison staff at all levels would like to see some other solution.”

Just defining mental illness in the context of supermax units is challenging. Some prisoners, viewed as mentally ill by the officers, are seen differently by mental health workers. “The officer will say, ‘This person is crazy’ and the psychiatric worker will respond, ‘No, this person is just behaving badly,’” says Rhodes. “This is a conflict—an old conflict—between treatment and custody.”

Conditions in these units are so difficult that no matter how prisoners get in, being there can exacerbate behavior problems. Rhodes points out that supermax prisoners are kept in their cells 23 or more hours a day, with little human contact. “The isolation can lead to states of depression and apathy,” she says. “Or prisoners can become committed to extreme forms of resistance. Raging, depressed, or hallucinating men ‘knot up’ in their cells. You see things happen in these places that don’t happen elsewhere.”

One obvious example is prisoners’ use of bodily waste as a weapon. It is not uncommon for prisoners to throw their waste at prison officers and each other. “Prisoners have described this as an effective weapon, developed by those deprived of everything but their bodies,” says Rhodes. “It’s a paradoxical effect—tight control over the prisoners’ bodies precipitates extreme uses of the body itself.”

There is some good news. Recent reforms by the staff of the supermax unit at the Washington Correctional Center (WCC) in Shelton have had promising results. While officers in supermax units often avoid contact with prisoners to steer clear of potentially aggressive acts, the WCC staff has taken the opposite approach.

“They made a commitment to increase the staff’s involvement with the prisoners,” says Rhodes. “The staff walks around the unit on a regular basis, going from cell to cell, talking to the prisoners about what they need, how they are doing, and how they can work toward moving out of the unit. They’ve changed the way they approach the inmates and, as a result, the way they think about them.”

These efforts to increase positive human contact may not seem dramatic, but Rhodes says they are a “radical move” in the context of contemporary maximum security units. The result has been a dramatic drop in the level of violence in the unit. “By talking to prisoners frequently and dealing with specific problems before they are magnified in solitude and anger,” says Rhodes, “the staff avoids surprises.”

Rhodes is currently developing new anthropology courses drawing on her years of research in prisons. “The prison has become a potent academic metaphor for power and resistance and is often drawn into connection with other current issues,” she says. “I’m looking forward to exploring these connections with students through ethnographic research that takes an ‘up-close’ look at the world inside our contemporary institutions.”