Supermax Prisons: Created in Response to Aryan Murders

    October 29, 2013

Slate crime correspondent Justin Peters wrote a story last week that explored the origins of the Super-maximum-security prison.

In 1983, the Marion Penitentiary in Illinois was the toughest prison in the federal system. In Marion’s maximum-security complex, the most dangerous and violent federal inmates were held; the worst had to live in the “control unit,” which Peters equated with being buried alive. Those prisoners’ few moments outside the control unit were spent shackled and under constant watch.

Two of the Aryan Brotherhood gang in Marion’s control unit, Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain, had managed to successively murder two black inmates in spite of the increased control. Their first victim, Robert Chappelle, was strangled during an exercise period.

Former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley describes their second in-prison murder on his site: “Silverstein [and Fountain] broke out of an exercise area and caught [black gang leader Raymond “Cadillac”] Smith as he was leaving a shower area. They stabbed him 67 times and then dragged his body up-and-down the prison tier so that other prisoners, still locked in their cells, could see the bloody corpse.”

Following the killings, Silverstein became obsessed with a prison guard named Merle Clutts whom he believed to be unduly harassing him. On Oct. 22, 1983, in-transit from Silverstein’s cell to the showers, a prisoner slipped him a shank, and the keys to his shackles. Clutts was stabbed 40 times by Silverstein, and within mere hours, Fountain had murdered a second guard.

The aftermath was horrific: since Marion officials believed these men to be truly uncontrollable, beatings became routine, and the entire prison was placed in a, 24-hour, 23-year state of lockdown. Inmates only got 90 minutes of exercise per day, compared with the 13-hour recreational average for federal prisoners.

The federal government saw the harsh action as fundamentally necessary. Former Bureau of Prisons director Normal Carlson told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998 that “There is no way to control a very small subset of the inmate population who show absolutely no concern for human life. [Silverstein and Fountain] had multiple life sentences. Another life sentence is no deterrent.”

Commissions in the 1990’s recommended ending the lockdown, and even Amnesty International had said that, in Marion, “There is hardly a rule in the [United Nations] Standard Minimum Rules [for the Treatment of Prisoners] that is not infringed in some way or other.” But Marion remained in a state of lockdown until 2006, and the methods pioneered there became a prototype for prisons today.

Almost every state in the Union now has at least one dedicated “control unit.” The largest today is ADX Florence in Colorado, whose more famous inmates include Ted Kaczynski, Ramzi Yousef, and Zacarias Moussaoui. Silverstein is also at ADX Florence.

Here is an interview on YouTube with former prison guard David Hale, who was employed at the prison during Fountain and Silverstein’s rampage (some of the language is NSFW):

[Image via a YouTube interview with David Hale]