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A Program to Cripple Federal Prisoners

Alberto Mares is a plaintiff in Adams v. Carlson, a suit brought by the ACLU Foundation’s National Prison Project. As a result of the suit, a federal court has ordered a halt to some parts of a “behavior modification program” at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Mr. Mares describes the program in the letter printed below. Some readers may suspect hyperbole when Mares says that the program “can result in death.” Therefore, it is worth nothing that the Marion program was apparently a cause of the suicide in November of one of Mr. Mares’s fellow prisoners, Jackson Fee.

While the worst parts of the rather primitive program at Marion have been stopped, other more sophisticated programs are going forward. In Springfield, Missouri, the US Bureau of Prisons is operating an experimental program known as START—Special Treatment and Rehabilitation Training. Prisoners in the START program are stripped of the amenities of prison life—daily showers and exercise, commissary privileges, visitors, all reading matter and all personal property. As they begin to conform to “appropriate” behavior patterns, they are rewarded by the restoration of the these comforts. Appropriate behavior means, according to the managers of START: 1. no abusive language; 2. not being irritable or angry; 3. no agitating of other prisoners; 4. not being demanding; 5. willingness to perform duties without persuasion.

A $13 million behavior modification center is being constructed by the US Bureau of Prisons in Butner, North Carolina. Several state prison systems are beginning to operate behavior modification programs. They all seem to be designed to make prisoners more tractable. If they fulfill this goal (which is open to considerable question), they may serve the purposes of the prison management. However, such programs threaten to have the same effects described by Dr. Bernard Rubin when he examined the program at the Marion penitentiary: “It demands a conformity to prison without any consideration of developing behavior which would be adaptive outside the prison, thus crippling the prisoner even more.” In the case of Sanchez and Ruiz v. Ciccone, National Prison Project is challenging the START program. The public protest that Mr. Mares calls for would be an important supplement to the ACLU’s lawsuits. (The National Prison Project’s address is 1424 16th Street NW, Suite 404, Washington DC 20036.)

Aryeh Neier

Executive Director, ACLU

New York, New York

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