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How to Survive Supermax

Inside the hell of solitary confinement

This work is supported by a grant from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, managed by Solitary Watch with funding from the Vital Projects Fund. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of solitary confinement has jumped by 500 percent in America’s prisons.

As a prisoner, you can find yourself in a “supermax”—a facility built for the specific purpose of holding a large number of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement—for a number of reasons.

If you commit a serious rule violation; if you seek protection or are considered too young for a general prison population; if you refuse to work; if you write or contribute to an article, literary work, or media report that runs counter to the institutional narrative; if you complain about, or in any other way anger, a prison official; or if you participate in a work strike, food strike, yard sit-down, or any other type of “group demonstration” (and these infractions will land you in solitary for a very long time), you can end up in a concrete cell the size of a closet.

You don’t know when, or if, you’ll be released. There’s no time constraint on how long you can be held (unless it’s for a serious rule violation or a new crime altogether, because they generally have more-or-less standardized tours in supermax attached to them). Prison officials can keep you there forever if they want, and some prisoners are in precisely that predicament. Even if you’re not one of them, you’re conscious that you’re “parked.” No administrative process, other than the guards’ “use-of-force” authority against prisoners, is carried out expeditiously in a supermax.

Every 30 days, a pair of guards appear at the door of the cell to take you to a “review.” They click handcuffs onto your wrists and attach a leash to you through a narrow hatch in the door called a cuffport. They order you to kneel on the concrete floor of the cell, facing away from the door. And when the door opens, they cinch leg shackles around your ankles and pull you to your feet.

The guards escort you through two heavy steel security gates and down a wide corridor lined with white tile. One guard grips your cuffed wrists and your shoulder. The other holds the leash. They direct you into a hearing room; it is austere, but still a disorienting contrast to the even starker environment in which you otherwise exist. Chairs, windows, people.

Several prison administrators sit in comfortable office chairs, laptops open in front of them, at a conference table larger than the cell you just left. The carpet makes it difficult to shuffle your feet, which is the only way you can walk in plastic slippers and leg shackles. You feel as though you might trip and fall on your face.

The guards lead you to a steel stool riveted into the floor, at the end of the table furthest from the administrators. They latch your cuffed wrists to a bolt behind the stool, and the length of chain running between your ankles to a bolt in the floor. You can’t move.

If at any point in the hearing you hear the word “Retain”—which is what almost every prisoner hears at nearly every hearing—it means you’re staying. You may feel a compulsion to try to talk the people around the table into changing their minds. Don’t bother. The decision they announced was made long before you entered the room. They won’t take it back.

Once in a while, a prisoner is informed he’ll be released. Then, 30 days later, he’s taken in front of the review committee again and is told that his paperwork has been lost or that the decision was rescinded. Sometimes prisoners have to be dragged back to their cells. The whole process is so traumatizing that prisoners often stop going to hearings altogether. When guards come for them, they simply refuse to leave.

When you’re in a supermax—or an Intensive Management Unit, as it’s dubbed here in Washington state—your field of experience contracts. It is wholly contained within your closet-size cell; the world outside prison, the prison itself, and the rest of IMU may as well not even exist. Your struggle to survive your stay in solitary is waged within the bounds of that cell.

You have to train yourself to make it through your time in IMU reasonably intact. There’s no instruction book—just as there are no manuals on how to endure the wheel or the rack. You either develop the ability over time, or you don’t. There are plenty of prisoners who don’t, or can’t, condition themselves to the environment. They’re the ones you hear screaming and pounding as hard as they can on the steel door of the cell all hours of the day and night. Or they’re the ones you don’t hear at all.

The pulse of IMU is the unremitting sound of madness. It pervades every part of the facility, reverberating through the concrete walls of the cell, the soles of your bare feet, your bones, your teeth. There is no time without the jarring slam of steel doors, screaming. You can hear the riot-suited guards with batons and Taser shock shields enter cells to “extract” prisoners. A guard passes through the block every 30 minutes with a heavy rubber mallet he uses to strike every wall, door, and cuffport to ensure the cells are all secure.

There is the blinding light that’s on 24 hours a day in the cell, and the constant exposure to institutional-grade capsicum spray, known familiarly in riot-control settings as pepper spray. The cellblocks are connected by air vents, so even if it isn’t you who the guards are spraying, the effect is nearly the same.

You have to dissociate yourself from the experience—to withdraw a part of yourself and keep it at a distance from the world at large. You start by deadening your senses to what’s happening around you. All that you see and hear in IMU would still happen whether you were there or not. You can’ t change any of it, and none of it is happening because of you. So you turn your attention away.

You have to protect that part of yourself from your feelings: the helplessness, the anger, the hopelessness that washes over you in an unebbing tide. Those are the feelings that arise inside you in that place. You can’t stop them. But if you stand back—if you don’t allow the separated part of yourself to wander out into the storm of those feelings—you can get through it.

You regiment your day. You create and continually reinvent a routine. And you stick to it. You pace the bounds of the cell: three and a half steps in one direction, three and a half steps back. You keep moving. When the cellblock floods and the cell floor is beneath several inches of water—which happens regularly because it’s one of the few forms of protest possible—you slog through it. When the floor isn’t covered with water, you break up your pacing with pushups and sit-ups.

You ration books. You get two a week—random paperbacks of a guard’s choosing.

Sometimes they’re complete. Other times, they’re not—a part is missing. You read a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter at a time. Whatever keeps you from running short of words before the next week. Books are passed out Sunday night—unless guards are busy with cell extractions or flooding, or they just don’t feel like passing books out. And of course, this happens often. When guards don’t bring books around—or you get ones you’ve already read—you read the books you have again. You recite what you memorize as you pace your cell.

If you went into IMU strong and healthy, that’s not the way you’re going to stay. You don’t get enough vitamins and calories, fresh air, sunlight, or anything else necessary for health. You grow anemic, jittery, skeletal. Unless you stop moving—in which case you become doughy, pallid, frail. You do what you can to care for your health, and you don’t sweat what you can’t. It’s not your body that’s going to get you through the experience—if, indeed, you do get through it.

You hold on to the part of yourself that’s separated. That part of you doesn’t do anything in that cell other than watch your body move, or not move. It is above you, outside you.

Your training manifests itself on your face as an impenetrable deadness. You wear that face like a mask to reviews—if, indeed, you go.

Like in the cell, you watch the review happen as if it were someone else there chained and on a leash. You respond only to what administrators ask. You let the deadness of your face suffuse whatever few words you use. You can’t afford to be invested in any outcome because you have no control over what happens, and the people who do have control harbor not the slightest compunction.

That’s because the impersonal, passive facade of long-term solitary confinement abets their misconception of what they’re doing. The way they see it, they’re not actually doing anything to you. They’re not breaking your bones on the wheel. They’re not stretching or snapping your tendons and sinews on the rack. They’ve merely situated you within an architecture—in this case, a sprawling two-story building in Walla Walla the same dusty color as the desert landscape around it, pinioned between two gun towers and ringed with a double perimeter fence topped with dense coils of rusting razor wire, adjacent to a cemetery picketed with graves marked only with prison numbers. What happens to you inside that cell is on you, not them.

You have to cache some kind of hope, purpose, or meaning inside yourself to bear the experience of the cell. It is so excruciating, it feels as though nothing else exists. Prison immolates life, and IMU grossly magnifies that process. You are an ant beneath a convex lens that channels the conflagrating power of the sun.

Beneath the mask of your face are the stifled screams and internal writhing that commenced, and haven’t for one second abated, since the moment they sealed you in that cell. But regardless of whether the people running the prison bother to acknowledge it, you are locked in a relationship with torture that’s intimate. Deadening your senses and separating a part of yourself doesn’t in any way lessen the pain—rather, it merely creates a gap inside that allows you to develop, if you can, the ability not to react.

But you cannot endure the experience without a reason. No human being can live without a reason, and, despite what the prison is doing to you, that is still what you are: a human being.

Whatever hope, purpose, or meaning you hold close beneath your mask, you can’t hedge it on something that might not happen—like a specific year or month you think they’ll let you out of that cell. You know the prisoners in IMU who do that. You know that they kill themselves. The suicide rate in the prison’s general population isn’t good. In supermax the rate is five to 10 times higher.

When a prisoner kills himself in a cell near yours, you watch through the narrow window slat of the cell door as guards pull the body out and cart it away. Whatever reason you have to go on—you grip it tighter. For you and everyone else in that place, confinement is unbroken. And the dead prisoner’s cell doesn’t stay empty long.

You use anger to keep yourself from slipping into the abyss of suicidal thoughts. And you may as well, because anger rises of its own accord—it’s inescapable in IMU. Anger is there because you’re conscious that every facet of the facility had to have taken an unfathomable level of ill will and malicious forethought to develop.

At least, that’s how you feel, because every aspect of the experience is weaponized. Down to the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail, like guards restricting your book “privileges” when they catch you attempting to communicate with another prisoner. Or the fact that the used and ragged underwear you’re issued is dyed pink. Or the icy air that’s blasted through vents, making the cell cold enough to double as a cooler. The meanness of it steals your breath.

Anger turns your mind outward. It’s a bulwark against which you can prop yourself. It’s an anchor, an unflagging determination to persist. But you can’t let anger become the sole reason you continue on. When everything else inside you is exhausted, and anger is all you have left, it grows beyond your ability to mitigate or control. And what happens to you is worse than if you were to kill yourself.

You know those prisoners when they show up in general population. They don’t last long. They return to IMU for senseless, and usually unprompted, acts of violence that are as over-the-top as they are inexplicable to anyone who hasn’t experienced long-term solitary confinement in a supermax.

Still worse prospects for recidivism are the prisoners whom administrators release from IMU directly to the streets. They’re the ones who almost immediately commit a violent crime that doesn’t make sense to society. Take the prisoner released from a Colorado supermax who drove to the director of corrections’ home and killed him. You know what that prisoner hid behind his mask in order to survive supermax. And so does every other prisoner in this country who’s made it through solitary.

If you ever do emerge from supermax, natural light will feel like a shank stabbing into your skull. You can’ t stop squinting. You experience vertigo in open spaces. You have to concentrate on what’s immediately in front of you because looking across any distance makes you feel as though you’ll topple over. Your body is brittle and racked with ceaseless shaking, tremors, bouts of violent retching. You have the haunted, sunken-eyed look of someone who’s been in a concentration camp.

These are all physical effects you get over. However, there’s a part of you—a part of whatever it is we are as human beings—that doesn’t get to leave IMU. It doesn’t recover with your body. It is an empty space that returns you to supermax when you sleep. You awaken in the night, heart in your throat, certain you’re still in the strangling grasp of the cell.

When you’re not asleep, the empty space shows up in behaviors prompted by psychological triggers you can’t control. When you’re crowded by others, you become overwhelmed with anxiety. Your impulse is to extricate yourself, to retreat from everyone, to self-isolate. And when you find you’re unable to do so, you do whatever it takes to get your back against the wall.

When someone touches you unexpectedly, without permission, or without excusing himself, you flash with anger, recoil or lash out without thinking. The experience takes you back to IMU—when the only touch you experienced was to be chained, leashed; pushed, prodded, pulled; dragged in the direction that the guards wanted you to proceed.

There are sights, sounds, and smells that constantly evoke IMU in you. When it happens, you can’t stop yourself from shutting down—you disengage the part of yourself that got you through IMU. You stare with a dead face, your eyes vacant and glassed over.

Other people don’t understand why you act the way you do, why you go dead. They don’t know the experience of a supermax. They don’t understand that what happened to you in that place still happens every day.