Solitary Confinement and Supermax Prisons

1 / 3
Brazil’s 550,000-strong prison population is the fastest growing in the Americas, having nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years or so.
2 / 3
America invented solitary and the supermax. Beginning in 1787, the Quakers experimented with solitary cells at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia and then in 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary.
3 / 3
In America alone, it’s estimated that some 80,000 individuals live in solitary. If you include jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile and military facilities in the count, the total is near 100,000.

In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it,is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville

It is not good for man to be alone. — Genesis 2:18

is Portuguese for “rattlesnake.”

Cascavel is also a small city in the Brazilian state of Paraná, close to the Argentine border. It’s two short plane rides away from São Paulo, and the hour-long drive from the mini-airport to my destination, an even littler town named Catanduvas, is flooded by charmed vistas. A fingernail of a leftover moon dangles in the morning sky. Opulent greenery is disrupted by odd-looking pine trees shaped like upside-down rainbows on matchsticks — Dalí paintings come to life.

My sabbatical is over, but I’ve managed to steal away for a few days from teaching English 101 to a newly enrolled cohort of students in the Prison-to-College Pipeline. Pulling up to my destination, I see something disturbingly familiar, from almost all my prison travels. The Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, Brazil’s first federal supermaximum prison, looks like a slice of the United States plunked down on foreign shores. I’ve come to learn more about this home to the so-called worst of the worst prisoners in a country making dramatic strides in mass incarceration.

Brazil’s 550,000-strong prison population is the fastest growing in the Americas, having nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years or so. I want to take a hard look at the practice of solitary confinement in top-security “supermax” prisons, which in the last 25 years began proliferating all over the world but are still relatively new to Brazil. In America alone, it’s estimated that some 80,000 individuals live in solitary. If you include jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile and military facilities in the count, the total is more like 100,000. Parents who created solitary confinement cells in their homes would likely be prosecuted for child abuse, yet thousands of American juveniles spend time in solitary confinement. It’s a reality I find almost impossible to wrap my head around.

André, a white-collar-crime lawyer who volunteers in Brazilian prisons, has accompanied me here. “Strange,” he says as he unbuckles his seatbelt. “Last time two men with big guns were waiting for me.” Today there’s only a sea of metal and wire; the place seems sucked dry of humanity. A red sign on the fence indicates in Portuguese something about “attention” and “warning.”

André steps out of the car and speaks loudly into a standing intercom.

 “Bon dia!

I’d met André this morning, in a São Paulo taxi. Though technically we’d met months ago, online, after I read about him in the context of a unique program taking place here. “Rehabilitation Through Reading” enables people to strike four days off their prison sentences, up to 48 days a year, for every preapproved work of literature, philosophy, or science they read and write a summary of. Over the course of our email exchanges, André had organized my visit and agreed to join me as translator. My stay wouldn’t be long enough to allow for work in the prison, but I was promised two full days inside and the opportunity to engage with the men, in their cells and in classrooms, about both their experience in a supermax and with the books program, which struck me as an intriguing, and unexpected, progressive intervention.

I’d flown to São Paulo and spent a weekend there, absorbing the metropolis’s three prominent features: magnificent street art, divine samba tunes — and the omnipresent military police force, notorious for murder. According to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, police officers nationwide killed 11,197 people between 2009 and 2014 — as compared to some 11,090 killed by U.S. police in the last 30 years. The secretary for public security in Rio once referred to police killings of innocent bystanders as the breaking of eggs to make an omelet.

Outside the prison gate in Catanduvas, a minivan finally appears, with the DEPEN logo on it. For a moment I imagine the word is missing its final D, but no — it’s an acronym for Brazil’s national prisons department. The van is escorting out a black Ford SUV containing the top brass at the prison, on their way to early lunch. A tinted window is rolled down and we’re invited to join them.

We follow the Ford to the dusty strip of paint-peeling storefronts that is the town center. The sun is blazing. Inside what feels like a Wild West–style saloon, we weigh plates of meat stews at the buffet and join our hosts. The prison director wears a black suit, and his piercing green eyes smile behind thin glasses; Mara, the head pedagogue, flicks her dirty-blond hair to one side and extends a manicured hand to me.

“Over 60 people from Paraná state are employed by my prison,” explains the director, puffing out his chest and explaining its history, as André translates.

The Supermax Prison

The idea of the supermax took hold as a solution to gangs, an infamous staple of Latin American prison life. Their reach extends from Mexico, where in 2012, imprisoned members of the Zetas murdered 44 prisoners at a jail in Apodaca, to Venezuela, where gangs control almost all prisons and guards are merely responsible for perimeter security, head count, and court transfers. In Brazil, the story really begins in 1991, at São Paulo’s notorious Carandiru Prison, now closed. That year military police killed 111 incarcerated people, including pretrial detainees, most via machine guns at point-blank range from the doors of their cells. Surviving men were stripped naked and many were attacked by dogs trained to bite genitals; some were stabbed, others forced to watch executions, carry bodies, and clean up blood because police feared contracting AIDS. To avenge the prisoners’ deaths, the Primeiro Comando da Capital gang was formed, and since then the PCC — often compared to South Africa’s Numbers gang — has flowered into a mammoth entity that all but runs prison life throughout the country. Since its formation the gang has been behind hundreds of deaths and dozens of prison uprisings. One example that can stand in for numerous similar incidents took place in 2014, here at the state prison in Catanduvas, when a 30-hour rebellion involved dozens of masked prisoners on the prison roof, unfurling PCC banners, tying the hands of other prisoners behind their backs, beating them, and dangling them over the roof’s edge.

The Catanduvas supermax, opened in 2006, was the government’s answer to gang violence. In a booklet distributed to the town’s population, the Department of Corrections explained that this first-ever Brazilian federal prison would house those deemed highly dangerous in an effort to reduce gang activity. About 25 percent of its population would be PCC leaders from across the country, removed from the state system and temporarily deposited in this supermax, home to 208 solitary-confinement cells. The structure cost some $18 million to build, thus representing an unprecedented financial investment in incarceration, and four more identical supermaxes soon followed. The annual cost per prisoner in this supermax is a whopping $120,000 a year, compared to what can average $36 per prisoner in Brazil’s impoverished state system, where prisoners often must feed and clothe themselves.

Back at the prison after lunch, Mara guides us through laborious security. There are two sets of sensitive metal detectors, electronic thumbprints, X-ray belts, wands, and thorough pat-downs. Surveillance cameras broadcast all angles of our search and this prison direct to Brasília, the country’s capital.

An agent in a navy-blue uniform, one of dozens circulating about the place, has been assigned to escort Mara, André, and me. He carries hulking keys that clink and clatter. Apparently the gates were initially electronic, but after a virus locked everyone in, the old lock-and-key system was instated. We pass a barbed-wire courtyard carpeted by gravel, where men and women in green uniforms wield buckets and sling garbage bags over their shoulders. I take them for prisoners but in fact they’re cleaning staff. We’re enveloped by the stinging smell of disinfectant.

It’s dead quiet.

Where are the prisoners?

“Your school teaches law, yes? I have a law degree,” our guide declares proudly. Agents in the federal system, which boasts higher salaries and better benefits than state prison jobs, generally have university degrees and are tasked not only with security but with intelligence gathering, mostly about gang activity. There are two agents for every man imprisoned here, as opposed to an appalling 350 prisoners for every one agent in the state system.

“Wear this,” Mara says, handing me a cover-up that resembles a white lab coat. She dons one, too. It feels bizarre, as if we’re scientists or clinicians. But it’s also a fitting uniform for so neutered a setting.

Down the hallway, through a door flanked by clear garbage bags filled with stale-looking bread, we enter a ward that evokes a meat locker. Perhaps it’s a morgue?

No, this narrow cell block is the prison-within-a-prison — solitary-within-solitary. The Regime Disciplinar Diferenciado, or RDD, is an extreme isolation regime used for exceptional disciplinary measures. The men in this unit, which many Brazilians have decried as violating the constitution’s ban on torture and inhumane treatment, are denied any contact whatsoever with other prisoners. Everyone at Catanduvas spends his first 20 days here.

Our agent swings open the metal door to an empty cell, which looks like a life-size dollhouse — or the nightmare version of one. It’s immaculate, about as big as a parking space, with a square desk, circular seat, and rectangular bed: blocks of conjoined concrete shapes under long fluorescent bulbs. Soft sunlight sneaks in through the slats of cathedral windows high above, dancing on yellow walls and creating neat orange shadows: four squares of sky. The sliver of a “sunbed,” which substitutes for a yard and provides a gasp of outdoors, is the size of a shower and has a tiny observation window, so guards can keep watch. Lines marking days counted have been etched into the cell’s metal door, the lone sign that human life was once here.

Human beings live behind two of the closed doors on this block, though I can’t see or hear them. I know they’re here only because their names are listed on paperwork affixed to the doors, along with their dates of admission. Both have been here, in extreme solitary, for two weeks now.

“You’re getting a good report, yes?” the agent says, smiling at my notebook. “You have many supermaxes in America. Many trips there to make this one and now you are come to see ours. Funny.”

America invented solitary and the supermax. Beginning in 1787, the Quakers experimented with solitary cells at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia and then in 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary, opened as an all-solitary facility, modeled after monasteries, where prisoners covered their heads with monklike hoods and Bibles were their only possessions. By the late 19th century, New York’s Auburn Prison model, involving daily hard labor and lockstep cohorts, had begun to take precedence. But solitary was resurrected during the 1930s in Alcatraz’s “D Block” and other storied “big houses” like San Quentin, Folsom, and Attica — colossal institutions designed for thousands and specializing in monotonous routines and extreme prisoner isolation.

Solitary made a full-on comeback in 1983, when a prison in Marion, Illinois, became America’s first to adopt a 23-hour-a-day cell isolation policy. As the U.S. prison population soared and tough-on-crime rhetoric intensified, other states followed suit. In 1989 California, where today the average term in solitary is 6.8 years, built Pelican Bay, considered the first supermax and characterized by extreme solitary, a total lack of activities or communal spaces, and a powerful administration not subject to outside review or grievance systems. In 1994 Colorado erected the so-called Alcatraz of the Rockies, ADX Florence, where the longest isolated federal prisoner has spent 32 years under a “no human contact” order. By 1999 there were fifty-seven supermaxes in thirty-four states; at Pelican Bay, 227 prisoners have been in solitary for over a decade.

Latin America, meanwhile, constructed its modern prisons between 1830 and 1940 and modeled several on Eastern State and a few on Auburn. Now, more than a century later, official visits to America and other countries boasting U.S.-style supermaxes — in Australia, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Ireland, Denmark, South Africa, and Russia — have brought us to Catanduvas.

En route to Cellblock Charlie, as the agent calls it, I finally hear a sound of life: muffled calls from the double-tiered wards, echoing through labyrinthine hallways.

Prisoners exist in the heart of this maze — and that term is apt, since its vestibules and courtyards have been designed to disorient. “Though he live to be in the same cell ten weary years,” Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote of the American prisoner in solitary, “he has no means of knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the building it is situated.”

I am steered to a cell where a hinged slat on the dense metal door creaks open. I peer through.

Eyes greet me. They belong to Carlos.

He stands at attention in his pristine, pint-sized cell, as if in a lineup.

Bon dia!” André says.

Those eyes. Windows to a grief-stricken soul.

It’s the most bizarre, unsettling conversation — interview? — I’ve ever conducted. I speak through a hole in a safelike door, André whispering hasty translation for me, and I’m surrounded by eavesdropping ears, interred behind neighboring iron doors.

Carlos, 41, is from a notorious Rio favela. These are essentially self-contained slums erected on vacant land by a growing class of urban poor during the 1980s, often compared to the garrison communities of Kingston, Jamaica, or the townships of South Africa. They lack basic social services and are lorded over by gangs. Carlos has spent 16 years in prison on homicide, gun possession, forgery, and hijacking charges, and has lived in Catanduvas for two years and eight months, after being transferred from the state system.

“But Mara,” I ask, spinning around, “isn’t there a 360-day limit to a prisoner’s stay in solitary here, after which he’s meant to be transferred back to the state?” I could’ve sworn the director told me as much.

“Most cases, yes,” she says. “But not always. It depends. This rule has changed.”

Carlos straightens out a wrinkle in his sky-blue T-shirt, which has “Inteno Sistema Penetenciaro Federal” printed across it. He explains that he has a 98-year sentence, but no one actually serves more than 30 years in Brazil.

“Good that our country is not like the USA,” he quips.

Carlos unfastens three photos from his wall and proudly displays his five children, aged five 23, and a seven-year-old grandson. Like most of the men at Catanduvas he’s had no in-person visits since his arrival. His family cannot afford to fly here — they can barely afford the bus fare from the favela to the virtual prison visit center in Rio, where families, using a Skypelike system, log on to see their incarcerated loved ones. Once, after Carlos painted the entire prison, the director paid his family’s transportation fees to the virtual visit center — it cost about $20 — but they’ve made just three more trips there since.

“How can I rehabilitate without family?” he asks.

“I dream, nightmares. Of being abandoned by my family, by my children. I wake up in panic with this kind of dream, anxious with fear. I want the chance to give them an example of how I made a mistake, yes, but I learned from my own mistakes, from the mistakes of others. I learned human beings deserve a second chance, an opportunity to show themselves so everybody will see that person has changed.” Carlos pauses and swallows hard.

“Twenty-two hours inside this cell. It is just hell. My days are hell, to tell you the truth. I am suffocating. I am dead. There is nothing else to say. Buried but alive, still.”

There is more to say, of course. But we talk Dostoyevsky instead. Carlos participates in Rehabilitation Through Reading, which Mara had explained to me. It was started in 2009 by a controversial federal judge who essentially told prison officials that, since there was no money for programs, let the prisoners read books! Like the supermax, it has American precedents such as Changing Lives Through Literature, a Massachusetts-based “bibliotherapy” program offering alternative probation options via literature classes. Good stories, the program’s Web site explains, provoke us to feel compassion for fictional characters, each other, and ourselves. By stepping into another’s shoes, it goes on, people in prison can process their emotional struggles without confessing.

Lifting a well-worn copy of Crime e Castigo (Crime and Punishment) from his shelf, Carlos delivers his analysis.

“Crime brings consequences to family. Think before you act. This is the novel’s essence. The main character, too — he confesses. Guilt eats him alive. He murdered and stole and he cannot go on. He is tortured in his mind. Impossible to do wrong and not feel guilt.”

“Do you feel guilt, Carlos?” I ask.

“Every day of my life. I am a living error — a walking mistake. Do you imagine how this feels? To be a living error? And only an error? But even in hell, I am hopeful. I am almost 42 now, but my life is not ended. I want to go to university. Study theology and psychology. I am writing a book, too; it is titled The Hikers of the Deep Fall. The hikers are you and me who look inside and see that as human beings, our job is to grab the rope and climb. Upward. Never seeing the long fall.”

Two men in white wheel a metal cart down the hallway, passing small plates of pills through the slats in each cell. Eighty percent of the men locked up here are on medication.

“I only took them when I first came here, yes  … ,” Carlos says. “To sleep, pills. And for anxiety. Depression. To be alone all of these hours — impossible. I am afraid.”

The agent seals the slat on Carlos’s door and, without a goodbye, he vanishes. Time is up.

Through muted echoes, we follow another metal cart carrying magazines to the library. It looks more like a closet, encumbered by books. They’re strewn about, especially the ones on the Rehabilitation Through Reading approved list, titles by José Saramago, Clarice Lispector, the Dalai Lama, J. D. Salinger. There’s a Bible, a dictionary, a book of evangelical songs, and stack after stack of celebrity magazines.

“Lots of Sidney Sheldon,” Mara says with disdain. At Otisville, too, the tiny library has a sliver of a history section, a few Latin American studies titles — and an outsized “fantasy” section.

“Prisoners are begging for more books, begging the government. Instead” — she rifles through a mound of glossy pages — “silly magazines.”

Outside the gates, the air is suddenly fresh and the landscape a blanket of emerald. André and I drop Mara at her condo in Cascavel, a gated complex that is, like the prison she works in, a striking simulacrum of U.S. housing.

“Thanks, America, for exporting this housing style to us, too,” André quips.

Our hotel, meanwhile, seems like Miami circa 1952. The whole town might well exist in another time and place. It feels like 1980s America, from the big-hair styles on the women strolling about, snacking on pão de queijo, to the hard-rock soundtrack emanating from Irish pubs on the road. André and I sit at one of them, eating fried fish with farofa, a dish made with manioc flour, and unraveling our day. Wringing his hands, he bemoans his country’s devotion to incarceration. The FIFA World Cup is around the corner and folks are joking, he tells me, that those pricey new stadiums will, once the crowds go home, become prisons. He grabs his temples.

“Even my family, my brother and father — they all say lock up the criminals and throw away the key. But how is this an answer?”

Baz Dreisinger is an associate professor in the English department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the founder and academic director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which offers credit-bearing college courses and reentry planning to incarcerated men. Excerpted from her new book, Incarceration Nations (Other Press, 2016).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.