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VI/125 Degrees of Separation: A Prison Activist's Notes

In the SHU prisoners spend twenty two and a half hours a day locked in a small, permanently lit, windowless cell, buried alive on the orders of warden or prison staff, not the courts.
Karl Macrae

Issue #48, March 2000

And what will happen in the evening in the forest with the weasel with the teeth so sharp when you're not looking in the evening.
— Nick Drake


Cells, fenced or walled perimeter. Electronic security, more staff and armed officers, both inside and outside the installation. SHU: Security Housing Unit: The most secure area within a level IV prison, designed to provide maximum coverage and surveillance.

Six guards forced Vaughn Dortch, an inmate at Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, into a vat of one hundred and twenty five-degree water to scrub his body with a steel-bristled brush. Dortch suffered from SHU syndrome, the deterioration of mental faculties caused by the extreme isolation of the SHU. In the SHU prisoners spend twenty two and a half hours a day locked in a small, permanently lit, windowless cell, buried alive on the orders of warden or prison staff, not the courts. The latest symptom of Dortch's affliction was that he had smeared his body with feces.

After fifteen minutes of prison hygiene Dortch was taken out of the water. As he stood, Nurse Barbara Kuroda noted, his peeling skin "[hung] in large clumps around his legs." She testified that one of the guards remarked, "Looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through. . . His skin is so dirty and so rotten, it's all fallen off."



While perhaps not as spectacular as Damien's public drawing and quartering as lovingly depicted in the opening of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Dortch's near fatal brush with the law defines a criminal justice system hell bent on living up to its name -- the criminal part at least. When I began working at the Prison Activist Resource Center ( I knew the prison system was in crisis. What I didn't realize was that collateral abuses such as those sustained by Dortch and, worse, are regular and acceptable, in as much as the steps needed to prevent them are rarely taken. After reading hundreds of letters from prisoners and meeting with others who work against the now common abuses, I have come to realize that the ease with which contemporary penology recalls medieval torture speaks volumes about our much lauded social progress.

Those who receive my harangues about prison issues at the corner coffee shop consider me an idealistic zealot. They find it hard to believe that I actually expect the incarcerated to be treated in accordance with well-established standards for humane treatment. They're astonished by my insistence that prisoners be spared the additional punishments of death, rape, medical neglect, humiliation, and torture that they routinely suffer at the hands of the supposed keepers of justice. Being sent to prison is supposed to be the punishment. Instead it has become the place in which people are sent to be punished further. The general social acceptance of this situation -- of prison as a chamber of horrors -- chills me.

If anything, we are devolving. The present trends of denying prisoners legal and educational resources and media access bodes poorly for all concerned with civil rights. Without these resources, the eighty-nine death row inmates found wrongly convicted since 1973 would now be dead, or still languishing as they had been for countless years. In these cases the system did not function as designed. Instead, it was only the determination of concerned citizens who fought for years, often without pay, that won these people freedom. In an already overburdened system, denying prisoners access to resources will only increase the abuses and deaths.

What we desperately need is more transparency, not less.

My concern here is not to establish that abuses continue to rise with the exponential growth of the prison industry, although they do. No, in this essay I want to demonstrate that the ideological underpinnings (or lack thereof) governing our current mass housing policy have radically changed.


Individual cells, fenced perimeter, armed coverage.

The passage below, from Thomas A. Markus's introduction to Order and Space in Society, describes competing beliefs about the relationship between the formation of an individual's character (criminal and otherwise) and his or her relationship to society during the Enlightenment:

"What both views however share is a fundamental pessimism about society, since it was either malevolent or irrelevant, and a fundamental optimism about the individual."

That was then. Today, it is hard to find such optimistic beliefs about the individual. I have heard those who work in the prison industry define individuals as inmates, criminals, convicts, scum of society, and toxic waste. Federal regulations for the interstate transport of cattle are more stringent than those regulating the movement of prisoners across state lines. As for those of us who live outside the razor wire in a landscape sorted in zones of social control, our status, power, and freedom either falls along a continuum of acquired wealth or is determined by race. Mike Davis describes well these zones of exclusion, containment, enhancement, and abatement. To these I would add privatization of public space, cross cultural control strategies such as profiling, and low level harassment (burb mentality) as further means of regulating the flow of individuals in society. What these policies reflect, if anything, is our fundamental pessimism about the individual and our pessimism as a society to cope with people, in any way other than increased repression.

It is almost impossible to believe that Thomas Paine could have argued that a government was successful when "[its] jails are empty of prisoners, [its] streets of beggars." The control and incarceration of the public has reached unprecedented levels. At current rates, one in twenty newborns will spend time behind bars, according to Justice Department Statistics. The business of locking people up moves at electron speed, advancing with every keystroke of a bed broker or a corrections consultant. It is as if this business were in competition with other businesses whose wealth generating capacities have yet to peak.

In 1990 Gilles Deleuze wrote the essay "Postscript on Control Societies," in which he described the shift from disciplinary societies, in which discipline takes place through confinement, to control societies. In control societies, the mechanisms of social control are no longer tied to place. Instead, they function by monitoring the movement of bodies through space and time, relying on prosthetic and biometric, surveillance, and other tracking technologies. Deleuze left out the possibility that both forms of control might blossom and work together in a stupefying danse macabre of remote and site specific mechanisms of control. There are those of us who feel the back of our necks tickle under the gaze of ubiquitous video cameras. And there are many more who have grown numb to the sensation. But at least we are spared the strip search. Actually, not even that is true. X-ray technology, with a limited capacity to see through clothing, has been in use at JFK airport for the past year. Nudity, not radiation, is the grounds on which this technology is being challenged.

RC: Reception center:

short term housing to process, classify, and evaluate incoming inmates.

I got in my car and picked up a fellow traveler, a young woman with whom I share a passion for working against the prison industry. We were on our way to FCI Dublin, a federal pen for women, to attend a pow-wow organized by the Native Americans housed there and the Four Winds Cultural Group. Even though we saw the road sign for the prison (Camp Parks), we failed to find the turn-off to the facility. Despite the amount of driving I do for work, I could hardly find the place. I was not surprised by all of this. Perhaps my anxiety about going inside played a part in my sudden loss of direction. Then again being easy to locate is not one of these places more notable attributes.

We parked and then met the others attending the event: a collection of drummers and singers most of whom were Native American, and a few folks such as myself who felt they had something to learn by going. As some gathered drums, I filled out the official form required for admittance: name, organization, license plate number, drivers license, social security number, etc. I imagined the government's data base grow with every stroke of my pen. We entered the lobby where a bunch of folks stood in line waiting to see loved ones. It reminded me of airport lines in front of metal detectors. The line ended at a counter, where prison officials waited like stern departure agents. Immediately to the left were metal detectors, then a door. The prison chaplain walked up to me and asked for my hand, on which he placed a rubber stamp. I looked at my hand but saw nothing there. I had been chemically impregnated but had no idea what had been placed on my skin. "What is that?" I asked, offering a meek smile. "Oh," he replied, "it's really for the women." My body was suddenly a little less my own.

At the counter I surrendered my driver's license. In groups of two we were escorted past the metal detectors and into a small chamber. The doors were opened and closed remotely. From this room we entered the prison yard. The first thing I saw was the sun, glancing off what must have been miles of razor wire. Glinting there in the sun, the wire looked like giant flesh tearing slinkys lolling one atop the other. Which brand did they choose, I wondered: Maze or Supermaze, Nato Barrier (some in here are considered political prisoners), or Ripper Razor Coil, the ad for which sports an escapee suspended in mid-air, dripping gore? The blurb explains, "Sharper blades provide deeper cut, higher risk." Or my personal favorite, Razor Wire Concertina (Ripper Profile®), which claims to use fewer spirals for the same performance. How, I wondered, do they measure performance? Who gave this facility the best deal? The sharpest tear for the buck?


Open Dorms with secure perimeter

In my beginnings as a prison activist, I saw the industry of locking people up, as a malignant form of interdisciplinary activity. Malignant in the sense that the very members of the public being protected are also those being locked up. In fact those most likely to fall victim to crime are also the ones most likely to be fed as raw material into the maw of this great machine. Interdisciplinary in the sense that this "magnificent achievement" of building, maintaining, and expanding what Hawthorne called "the black rose of society" into one of this decade's major "growth industries" requires so many different disciplines.

It is a veritable disciplinary ragu: architecture, medicine, law, literature, psychology, computer science, economics, politics... Prisons mark the ultimate in getting along with others. Were it not for networks of planners, designers, biometrics experts, chemists, biologists, business people, lawyers, journalists, and politicians, none of this would exist. There are growing ranks of admirable professionals and others behind prison walls or on the outside who are working to change this secret society, but as with attorneys there are too many for the few, and too few for the many. In view of this situation, I often dwell on the inability or unwillingness of professionals to exert their own power, however meager. Once I met a doctor who told me prison officials were denying people care at an institution where she worked. When I pointed out this was illegal, she shrugged her shoulders and changed the subject.

i reared a criminal During the pow-wow I sat next to a friend who is an attorney. He turned to me and spoke of that definitive moment when for each and every person we saw in prison sweats, a juror uttered the word guilty, and a gavel dropped. For him that moment defined the horror or what was now before him. For me, having been schooled in architecture, the defining image of prison horror was of countless individuals staring at computer screens with bleary eyes while they manipulated electrons into the plans upon which the housing of two million people would be based. I whispered to my friend, "For every building you see...for every cell and every bed, every isolation tank, every weld on every truss, every blade of manicured grass, every blade of razor wire, someone, somewhere sitting at a drafting table or computer, drew the plans for them up with accuracy and precision and with full knowledge of to what use their drawings and labor would be put."

I decided to research the designers of specific institutions. After all, it would be nice to know to whom Governor Deukmajian was referring specifically -- what team of architects, engineers, and planners he praised -- when he called Pelican Bay "a model for the rest of the nation."

Finding architects to design prisons, on schedule, to spec and within proposed budgets, was far easier than I imagined it would be. Logging on to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) web page, I clicked the "find an architect" icon and then posed as a client seeking a designer of correctional facilities. Unlike many architectural firms that have a policy against prison work, these corporations are brazen in what informs their professional decisions.

HDR for instance has a whopping 235 "justice projects" under their belts, including "the design of over 150 state and county detention and correctional facilities, representing more than 100,000 beds, with a combined construction value of over $6 billion over the past 23 years." HOK, one of the larger, more prestigious firms in the world, is more genteel. Their site insists, "Our designs must go beyond pure function -- they must enrich people's lives in a positive meaningful way." How sweet: 120,000 prison/detention beds full of positivity and meaning. A sidebar reassures, "The environments are distinguished by design and functional excellence, operational efficiency and cost effectiveness." However, there is nary a word of the people they house or employ, under what conditions, and with what effectiveness. Nor do they explain how their particular brand of excellence is measured.

Like concrete, the architecture/justice nexus has hardened with time. Herbert McLaughlin, the M in KMD, a large San Francisco firm, and a member of the Attorney General's Ad Hoc Committee on Correctional Architecture, has fearlessly pushed his firm to become a "leader in jail, prison, and court architecture." RQAW has received national awards and recognition for its conversion of an existing elementary school into a new 82 bed county jail, a project which becomes less arduous as more surveillance technology is added to public schools. The public smiling face of architectural integrity these firms unctuously display is little more than an investor relations ploy. Insulating the investor from the reality of what the money actually does is the name of the game.

The most chilling example of this I've come across assumes the most nonchalant of positions. Frank Roberts works for Durrant, an architecture, construction, engineering, and financing conglomerate. He promises, "Privatized prisons built on spec?. . . You bet!" and goes on to brag about his ability to predict what the correctional facility marketplace will look like into the next century.

Tom Adams illustrated the twisted logic used to justify the prison industry in a recent article that appeared on the AIA website "Accommodating the Unsavory Side of Society: Contemporary Jails and Prisons." In the article Adams displays either a professional ignorance so staggering it should be criminal, or an insatiable thirst for money. In an unpalatable mulligan's stew of straw men, unsubstantiated anecdotes, and saliva-inducing teasers, Adams attempts to describe the problems associated with prison design without any mention or analysis of who, why, and under what conditions people are locked up. Simply asserting that there are bad people and something must be done with them would be more enlightened than Adams' article, which has the desperate feel of someone attempting to rationalize their anxiety about what they do.

On the one hand, Adams decries the lack of aesthetic freedom architects are allowed in prison design and the difficulty of including amenities like air conditioning. Whether air conditioning is an amenity at places like Chowchilla, where women wait out 106 degree temperatures, eight to a 16x18 ft. cell, goes unexamined. Adams blames "public perception", complaining that designers are told to "ugly up" the buildings to appease the anonymous public. On the other hand, Adams notes, "At an average cost of $50,000 per bed, this represents $13.6 billion in construction dollars with no end in sight." Despite design constraints, budgetary concerns that stifle innovation ("security does not come cheap"), and the nasty public, Adams and his peers shall overcome someday. It's not his fault the public is so misinformed. After all, prisons and jails -- or in his euphemism-laden prose, "the other components of the Criminal Justice System" -- "have been besmirched by images portrayed in Brubaker, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Birdman of Alcatraz."

Despite the poor public perception of prisons, Adams still hopes that they can "affect the individual's future with education, training, development of good work habits, and counseling." Wishful thinking aside, it is impossible for anyone with any experience in prison issues to believe this, given the gutting of programs for prisoners and reports of rampant abuse.

Untroubled by such details, Adams demonstrates the power of positive thinking in the inevitable conclusion, "While the architecture may not make a better citizen out of those that have erred, it can facilitate the institution's ability to carry out its mission." This position has many blind spots. Adams only acknowledges his responsibility to the institution that commissions him. He completely neglects his responsibility to those who people his creation. Neither guards nor inmates are discussed except in the most cursory of ways, and no world outside the prison is acknowledged. The fact that architects are neck deep in what must be seen as social/political control on a massive scale --demonstrated by the fact that one third of black males in both Florida and Alabama can no longer vote, with a total of 3.9 million Americans barred nationwide -- does not occur to Adams. The AIA's code of ethics -- members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors (section E.S. 1.4 Human Rights) -- apparently does not apply here.

Control units such as Pelican Bay's SHU, designed ostensibly to reduce human-on-human abuse, have had the opposite effect. More astounding than that, the psychological abuses meted out to those who are forced to live in these environments are built into the very functioning of these structures. It doesn't matter how those who run the facilities behave. So much for the AIA's code of ethics.

After the pow-wow I was escorted back into the chamber I had entered through. I placed my hand under a light that shone down from an inset in the wall to my right. I hadn't noticed it on my way in. A spot on my hand glowed fluorescent; it was green or purple. This confirmed I was not one of the women inmates. The doors opened. I walked.


Open dormitories without secure perimeter

I wake up and walk to the corner coffee shop. Outside is the man who sells me the homeless newspaper. We talk. When I tell him about my work in prison issues he tells me he was once inside. Huntsville he tells me. The execution capital of the country, I think. He tells me how the death chamber, with its constant stream of the condemned, gave him the creeps. Out of the corner of my eye I see a local, a man who was locked up for a short stint in Portland. I wait in line. When I get to the counter, a man who was incarcerated in New Mexico serves me my coffee. While he was in prison he watched a man attack another man. The attacker grabbed the other man and in a ravenous fit bit through his shorts and his scrotum. The blood poured down the man's legs in a crimson tide, flooding his shoes and spilling out onto the floor.


  • The various levels referred to in this essay reflect levels of security defined by the California Department of Corrections. If they seem confusing, you are not alone. There are levels within levels, but according to the CDC, there are only four levels of detainment.
  • For sources on the Dortch case, contact California Prison Focus, a group that started as the Pelican Bay Project. For another account that differs slightly from the one above see "US Prisons: Torture Never Stops!".
  • On the effects of torture, see At the Mind's Limits by Jean Améry.
  • For UN standard minimums for the treatment of prisoners, click here.
  • Behind the Walls is a site dedicated to those who work in prison and who ask [to be] "treated with the respect they deserve for putting up with the scum of our society.
  • Although I am not paranoiac by nature, it seems that implantable transceivers have become a reality. From a recent press release: "The implantable transceiver sends and receives data and can be continuously tracked by GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology. The transceiver's power supply and actuation system are unlike anything ever created. When implanted within a body, the device is powered electromechanically through the movement of muscles, and it can be activated either by the "wearer" or by the monitoring facility. For background, see Digital Angel.
  • I wonder if the administrators at JFK are using BodySearch. This X-ray machine, which is designed to detect metallic and organic substances on the body, was first used at Deer Lodge State Prison in Montana in 1998. The migration of technology from prison to the outside world is nothing new. From Retin-A, that oh so expensive vanity cream, to shock restraining devices, prisons have always been and remain active testing sites for new technological devices. When asked what he felt upon first entering a prison, M. Kligman, a doctor jonesing to perform dermatological experiments, replied, "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time." His experiments include the effects of dioxin on skin. His remarks became the title of a documentary and a book. See: Allen M Hornblum, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison.
  • For razor wire ads, click here.
  • For an interesting and somewhat encouraging debate on the role of physicians in prisons and whether working in prison is in the best interest of the physician or the prisoner, see these letters. On the other hand, if you think managed care is bad on the outside, check out "Death, Neglect, and the Bottom Line".

At the age of 14, Karl witnessed the low-tech slaughter of a young cow in a small Swiss village, a slaughter that doubled as entertainment for the kids. This experience cemented Karl's fears that people really are bloodsucking fucks. The rest of his life has been spent attempting to counter this notion. Karl enjoys walking his dog, and driving too fast along winding roads in order to exact his revenge on the world.

Copyright © Karl Macrae. "Criminal" graphic © 2000 by Kim Nicolini. All rights reserved.