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Old 04-24-2004, 03:46 PM
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I came across this article last week on Google and finally got around to reading it today. Its about the DDU unit (Supermax) over at the Cedar-Junction Prison in Massachusetts. Its a very interesting read, and at times brought tears to my eyes.


The Solitary Men
John Geoghan's prison murder sparked widespread calls for reform, but the state's toughest lockup isn't a target for change. Here, as Robert Preer learns on a rare visit inside, inmates, isolated for months or years, can struggle like prisoners of war with depression, hallucinations, and panic attacks.
By Robert Preer, 4/4/2004

After 30 years in state and federal prisons plus a few years in juvenile detention, Bobby Dellelo thought he had experienced everything there was to life behind bars. He was serving a life sentence for his part in a Boston jewelry heist in which an offduty police officer had been killed. A seventh-grade dropout, Dellelo had gone to school in prison, earning both high school and college diplomas.

He was not a model prisoner, however. He had been confined to his cell numerous times as punishment for being disruptive. Twice he had been sent to the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and he was there when, after an outbreak of violence, prisoners were permanently confined to their cells 23 hours a day. Nothing, though, he says, prepared him for the Departmental Disciplinary Unit at MCI-Cedar Junction, Massachusetts's maximum-security prison in Walpole.

The special segregation unit, where inmates, more than a hundred of them, are kept in their cells 23 hours a day, is the jail of the Massachusetts prison system. It houses what authorities call the worst of the worst -- men who have assaulted guards, attacked or even killed other inmates, made shivs out of toothbrushes, or violated some other rule of prison.

And Dellelo had broken the most basic rule of all: He had escaped.

On Halloween in 1993, he scaled a wall and evaded electronic sensors at the state prison in Bridgewater. He was captured in a Cambridge apartment the day before Thanksgiving. For these 24 days of freedom, Dellelo, then 52, was punished with five years in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit.

At first, he says, he did not mind the 7-by-12-foot cell with a window about 6 inches wide and 2 feet high, looking into the hall. Through that window and two small openings in the door, he experienced almost all of his human contact during his stay in the unit -- mainly receiving meals from officers and handing back his tray when finished. There is another small window looking onto a barren prison yard.

For one hour a day, he was taken out of the cell, in shackles and handcuffs, either to the shower or, along with other inmates, to an outdoor exercise cage that looks like an oversize dog kennel.

For the first month, he, like other new arrivals, was allowed only one phone call, but with good behavior, privileges were granted and increased, to a maximum of four calls and four visits a month. The phone calls are made from a portable pay phone that is wheeled to the cell. The visits are face to face but non-contact, the visitor and inmate separated by a glass divider and talking on a phone. After 60 days, he got a radio, and after 90, a television. Dellelo also could get four books at a time from the outside, as well as reading materials delivered from the prison book cart.

"They give you a TV. They give you a radio. They give you the batteries. You think this is not so bad. Then you sit in your cell, and 4 feet away is the door," he says.

Dellelo realized he was in trouble when he met with his attorney once and had a panic attack when she shifted her body in her chair. When she asked him questions, he says, his mind went blank.

He returned to his cell dazed. "I said to myself, 'What the [expletive] was that all about? What just happened?' " After a while, he understood that he had become used to communicating with people through his cell door and seeing only their heads. Normal body language had become foreign to him, and deeply disturbing.

"I had done a lot of time in segregation and isolation, but I was not psychologically prepared for the DDU," Dellello says. "Very surreptitiously, it takes you down."

While solitary confinement is not new -- prisons everywhere have used it for centuries -- there is one important difference between solitary in a so-called supermax like the DDU and other forms of isolation: length of stay. Supermax sentences are measured not in days or weeks but in months and, in many cases, years.

Supermaxes have been controversial from the start. Prisoners and their advocates, as well as US and international human rights organizations, have condemned them as inhumane and a form of torture. Medical research has found that isolation produces a range of symptoms in humans, from confusion and anxiety to hostility, depression, and hallucinations. The effects have shown up in diverse subjects: prisoners of war, shipwreck victims, bedridden patients, long-distance truck drivers, and researchers in Antarctica. Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a specialist on the effects of solitary confinement, calls the practice "toxic to mental functioning."

Nonetheless, a series of court rulings has upheld the rights of states and the federal government to operate such facilities. Judges have ruled consistently that they do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Prison reform is in the air in Massachusetts this year, prompted by the well-publicized prison murder of a pedophile priest and the high cost of incarceration in a time of austerity. Just last month, Governor Mitt Romney named Kathleen M. Dennehy commissioner of the Department of Correction. The first woman to be in charge of the state system, she has committed herself to changing the way it is administered. Furthermore, a special commission, as well as the Department of Correction itself, is in the midst of sweeping reviews of state correctional practices and programs. These inquiries come at a time when the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s are being questioned nationwide.

But in the midst of this scrutiny, the Departmental Disciplinary Unit -- the harshest component of the state prison system and also one of the most expensive -- has barely registered on the agenda. Correction officials defend the unit and say they have no plans to change the way it operates.
Known to inmates and staff by its initials, the DDU is the only supermax, or control unit, in Massachusetts. The unit is in a state of permanent lockdown. It has 124 cells, which are almost always filled or near capacity. In the DDU and other supermaxes, there are no GED classes, no prison workshops, no anger management sessions, no religious services.

Supermaxes spread across the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, part of a larger shift to harsher treatment of criminals. Today, three dozen states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have supermaxes, either as separate prisons or as units within prisons. They house some 20,000 inmates -- about 1 percent of the total US prison population.

But in some states, officials are now questioning the wisdom of extreme penal policies, including the use of supermaxes. Ethical concerns are one reason for the emergence of what has been termed a "get smart" approach. Another is the cost of operating supermaxes in a time of tight budgets. The absence of rehabilitation in the supermax model is also troubling to some officials, who recognize that most such prisoners will someday be released to the street.
The most dramatic shift has occurred in Maryland, where last year, Mary Ann Saar, the secretary of public safety and correctional services, called for razing the state's supermax prison -- built 14 years earlier at a cost of $21 million.

"First of all, it's inhumane," Saar told the Associated Press. "Second, it has no program space. Nor can it be converted. It was built so hard, we can't change anything."

Concern about the Massachusetts prison system was triggered by the slaying last summer of convicted child molester John Geoghan inside the Souza-Baranowski prison on the Lancaster-Shirley line. The press and, later, an official inquiry documented Geoghan's mistreatment by correction officers. His death also was widely seen as a failure of the inmate classification system, which allowed the frail 68-year-old former priest to be in a unit with Joseph Druce, a convicted killer with an avowed hatred of homosexuals.

Druce, who is accused of Geoghan's murder, was confined to the DDU for mailing dozens of letters with fake anthrax from prison, and he was released from the unit into the general prison population shortly before Geoghan was slain. He is back in the DDU now.

The cost of Massachusetts prisons also became a topic of debate late last year. The business-financed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation issued a report noting that the state spends more on prisons than on higher education. The foundation called for more money for colleges and the repeal of mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Massachusetts correction officials say they do not know how much it costs to operate the DDU, because its expenses are folded into the Cedar Junction budget. But their high manpower requirements make supermaxes, in general, very costly to run. For example, officers have to deliver meals to the cell doors, then return to pick up the trays. Maryland officials estimate that it costs $40,000 a year to house an inmate in the supermax prison versus $23,000 a year on average at other state facilities.

Whether the DDU becomes a subject of controversy could hinge on the findings of the special commission appointed by Romney to review the Correction Department. The commission, chaired by former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger, is investigating all aspects of the agency and is scheduled to release its findings in late spring or summer.
Today's key players in the field of state corrections policy do appear to be more reform-minded than their recent predecessors. Last year, the governor's public safety secretary, Edward A. Flynn, told a legislative panel, "It's not enough to be tough on crime. We need to be smart on crime."
Late last year, Romney dismissed Correction Commissioner Michael Maloney, a 30-year employee of the department, and replaced him with Dennehy, who had held a variety of jobs in the department over the previous 28 years. Corrections is a male-dominated field, and the appointment of Dennehy, a Wheaton College graduate, was widely seen as a sign that change was on the way. She furthered that perception with her initial moves, which included the ouster of superintendents at the Cedar Junction and Concord prisons.
Leadership in the Legislature also has changed. The Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety, which oversees corrections, is Jarrett Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat and one of the Legislature's most liberal members. His predecessor as Senate chair of the panel was conservative Democrat Guy Glodis of Worcester, a former correction officer, who succeeded another conservative Democrat, James Jajuga of Methuen, a former state trooper. Jajuga later served as public safety secretary.
But despite the new mood on Beacon Hill, calls for DDU reform or abolishment were coming this year only from the core opposition that has been around for years: several black legislators and a few white liberals.

Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat and a psychiatric nurse, was doubtful the DDU would be caught in a wave of reform. "I can't say we've seen any change," she says.

Representative Gloria Fox, a Boston Democrat and a leader of the black legislative caucus, is hopeful that financial arguments would have an effect. "Since that's what our administration understands, that's what we hope to point out. It's not the best way to spend our dollars," she says.
A Democrat from central Massachusetts, Senator Stephen M. Brewer of Barre has long expressed an interest in corrections, but while he senses a new climate on Beacon Hill, he believes legislators will be cautious. "During an election year, one would not want to be perceived as soft on crime. We all saw what happened with Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton. Legislators don't want to be 'Willie Hortonized,' " Brewer says.

Over the years, solitary confinement has been in and out of fashion. In the early 1790s, an isolation block opened at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail, the first large-scale experiment in solitary confinement. It was believed that prisoners would reform themselves if given time alone to reflect on their misdeeds. In the first half of the 19th century, the Philadelphia model spread to neighboring states.

Its most eloquent critic was Charles Dickens, who studied the American penal system while visiting America in 1842. After touring a Pennsylvania penitentiary, where prisoners were held in solitary, Dickens declared the practice "cruel and wrong" and worse than physical torture. Of the inmates, Dickens wrote, "I looked at some of them with the same awe as I should have looked at men who have been buried alive and dug up again."
Solitary eventually fell out of favor, and by the late 19th century and continuing throughout the first half of the 20th, the dominant model was prison-as-factory. Large, sprawling institutions were built, and men were put to work.

An exception was Alcatraz, a long-term segregation facility that opened in 1934 to house the most dangerous federal inmates. But by the 1960s, Alcatraz was widely seen as a relic, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy presided over its closing in 1963.

This ushered in a brief period of reform, in which rehabilitation and prisoners' rights were dominant themes. But by the 1970s, American prisons had become increasingly violent, with assaults on guards and inmates alike commonplace. To quell the violence, authorities turned to locking prisoners in their cells.

Events at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, in October 1983 launched the next era of correction policy. After two years of escalating violence and tension, the prison erupted. In a single week, an inmate was murdered and two guards were killed in separate stabbings on the same day. Officials locked down the entire institution, confining prisoners to their cells 23 hours a day. With the violence contained, officials made a momentous decision: The lockdown would continue indefinitely.

Marion became the model for a new kind of prison: supermax. Across the country, states began building their own supermaxes or converting existing facilities to the control units.

Massachusetts joined the trend on April 1, 1992, when the DDU opened inside maximum-security Cedar Junction. While the new unit fulfilled the get-tough goals of then-governor William Weld, it had a secondary purpose: It solved a thorny legal problem the administration had inherited from its predecessor.
In the early 1980s, state prison officials had designated a section of Cedar Junction as a segregation unit where troublesome inmates were locked down in their cells for long stretches. Prisoners' rights advocates challenged the unit's legality, arguing in state court that the inmates were denied education and other programs available to inmates in the rest of the institution. A judge agreed, and to comply with the court order, the administration of Governor Michael Dukakis in 1989 began building a new secure unit at Cedar Junction that would house the difficult inmates. This was to be the Departmental Segregation Unit, which would provide both the isolation officials wanted and the programs the court required.

In 1990, Weld, a former federal prosecutor, was elected governor, having said during his campaign that he wanted to reintroduce prisoners to "the joys of busting rocks." To run his Department of Correction, Weld in July 1991 hired Larry E. DuBois, a former federal prison administrator who had been assigned to Marion and was one of the architects of its conversion to supermax.
Later that year, the administration announced a major policy shift: The new facility under construction in Walpole would be for discipline, not segregation. Since its purpose was punishment, not administrative segregation, officials argued they were not required to offer programs available elsewhere in the institution. A state court upheld the administration's stance.

Built at a cost of $16 million, the DDU is the second largest investment in the state prison system over the past 15 years, surpassed only by the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski. The unit still has the spaces that were built as classrooms or program areas, which were part of the original design for the segregation unit. They have been converted to offices, interview rooms, and other uses.

Massachusetts correction department officials defend the DDU. They say it is reducing violence in the state's prisons by separating disruptive individuals from the general inmate population, while deterring others who might be inclined to cause trouble. They cite statistics that show a decline in assaults and other incidents throughout the prison system since the unit opened, while acknowledging that many other factors were at work during this time, including the opening of Souza-Baranowski.

To the charge that conditions in the DDU damage inmates' psyches, prison officials note that inmates are screened before being admitted and that mental health and religious staff make rounds once a week.

Department officials object when the DDU is referred to as isolation or solitary confinement. They note that prisoners can communicate with one another through cell doors by raising their voices and that they see one another in their separate exercise cages. On the lack of rehabilitation, they note that counselors do come to inmates' cells and that formal education is offered via television.

Prison officials have been willing to open the doors of the unit to outsiders. A New York Times reporter conducted interviews inside the DDU in 1998. Court TV was allowed to film a segment in the unit.

Commissioner Dennehy says she welcomes scrutiny: "We stand for openness. We stand for dignity."

In January, authorities arrange for me and a photographer to visit the unit and to interview inmates. Superintendent David Nolan, who leads the tour, is cheerful and businesslike. I have been in a number of prisons before as a journalist, so I am somewhat prepared for the experience. Nevertheless, a chill comes over me as we enter what is surely one of the darkest corners of society.

The tour begins on a typical block of 10 cells. As the entourage of staff and journalists makes its way down the hall, inmates can be seen leaning on their cell doors, pressing their faces against the windows to see what's happening. Through the plexiglass haze, standing motionless in their drab jumpsuits, the men take on a ghostly appearance. The tour moves briskly, stopping in the control room, where officers monitor a bank of video cameras. The room is the hub of the unit, which has three wings, each with four tiers of cells.
Several inmates who agreed to be interviewed and photographed are taken to an area used for meetings with attorneys. The large room is empty except for a desk in the middle with four bolted-down chairs. Handcuffed behind their backs, the men are unable to shake hands, so I greet each with a nod of the head, which some, like Bernard White, a 35-year-old New York City native, an African-American man of medium build, do not return. He is expressionless, answering without elaboration queries about his original crime (attempted murder), reason for assignment to the disciplinary unit (assault on a correction officer), and time in the unit (two years served, one to go). After I explain that I am trying to find out what it is like to live here, he flashes a look of recognition. "It's hell," he says quickly. Then, managing a faint smile, he adds, "From what I understand, that's what it was designed to be. So I guess it's working."

Luis Ayala, 37, a native of Lynn, has a more positive outlook, but he has been in the unit only 2 1/2 weeks and is facing just three months here, for fighting with another inmate. Ayala says he has been in and out of prisons for various offenses, most involving guns or drugs.
"I got no complaints. Time is where you do it," says Ayala, who sports a shaved head and a dark goatee.

Joseph D. Donovan, 28, is in his second stay in the DDU, where he has spent the last 3 1/2 years. He landed in the unit, he says, following an altercation with an officer who was shaking down his cell. "It's a revolving door," he says. "You get back out in the [general prison] population, and there is nowhere to go. You get one DDU ticket, you get another."

Donovan is serving a life sentence for murder. At 17, in 1992, he and two other young men assaulted and robbed an MIT student on Memorial Drive. Donovan punched and knocked down the 21-year-old student, who was from Norway. Then, one of Donovan's companions stabbed the man to death.
Because he had turned 17 three weeks earlier, Donovan was tried in adult court. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without a chance of parole.

The youth who wielded the knife was 15. He received 20 years, the maximum juvenile sentence, and was released after 10. The third man had testified against the other two in return for a plea bargain. He was released after 10 years.

Donovan says he spends much of his time studying legal matters. He has been trying to get a judge to review his case.

Alert and well-spoken, Donovan says he is holding up to the stresses of the DDU. "Myself, I'm not so bad, but I've come in contact with many who aren't."
Daniel Tavares has been in the DDU for five years and is not scheduled to leave until his original sentence -- 13 years for manslaughter -- is up on December 21, 2005. In 1991, he stabbed his mother to death in an argument. While in the DDU, Tavares has had many disputes with officers, some of them physical, which have resulted in repeated extensions of his DDU sentence as well as the loss of radio and television. Tavares, 37, has a graying, thinning crewcut and jagged teeth. He talks slowly and deliberately, and behind heavy eyelids, he seems to struggle to contain his anger. Prison officials view him as a troublemaker. While Tavares is being interviewed, an officer stands against a wall and videotapes him. Officials say they often videotape him when he is out of the cell, to document his actions and to have evidence to refute charges he might make.

Tavares admits he has been a difficult prisoner but says it is because he has been abused. He says he has scars where officers have deliberately hurt him. "How many times can you kick a dog before he bites back?" he asks.
Prison officials deny Tavares's abuse charges. Commissioner Dennehy acknowledges there have been infrequent cases of prisoner mistreatment in the DDU and says that officers have been disciplined. "There is no waffling on that," Dennehy says. "The bottom line is we don't tolerate it."
Clearly, inmates cope with conditions in the DDU with varying degrees of success. In the 12 years since the unit opened, there have been 640 releases to the general prison population. Return trips to DDU number 190 -- a recidivism rate of 30 percent.

Whether that figure represents success is difficult to determine. Prison officials say they are comfortable with it. About the only comparison is with the old segregation unit, where difficult prisoners were sent before the DDU opened in 1992. According to a 1998 study by a private consultant hired by the state, recidivism of inmates released from the segregation unit in 1991 was 18 percent.

A few inmates are released each year from the DDU directly to the street. The Department of Correction does not track recidivism to prison for these men. (The overall recidivism rate for inmates released from Massachusetts prisons is 41 percent.) Jamie Bissonnette, co-director of criminal justice for the New England office of the American Friends Service Committee, says that people who work with prisoners estimate that nearly all of these DDU inmates return to prison. "They can't handle anger," she says. "They are extremely paranoid. Because they spend so much time alone, their conscience doesn't work the same way as others'."

She says she knows of only one person who made it out of DDU and adjusted to life outside: Bobby Dellelo.

Now 62, Dellelo is heavyset with wavy gray hair, bushy eyebrows, and a few missing teeth. He was interviewed for this story in January in a conference room at the Cambridge office of the American Friends Service Committee, where he has volunteered, working for prisoners' rights, since his release last November.

Dellelo challenged his original conviction and won the right to a new trial last year. Prosecutors offered him a deal -- a guilty plea to a lesser charge with a sentence of time served -- and he took it.

If anyone is qualified to write a manual on how to survive in DDU, it is Dellelo. After he figured out his problem with body language, he started using his hands and moving his body when talking to inmates in the exercise area, and he urged them to do the same. He learned to turn off the television. "When you are in a situation of sensory deprivation, a TV can be damaging. You think it's talking to you," he says. He accepted the violent, often gruesome fantasies that came into his head, while telling himself they were not reality. Much of his time he spent studying transcripts of his trial, an endeavor that led to his release.

Upon being set free, he learned to cope with overstimulation. He contained his fears in crowds. He says he is grateful to his family, which stood by him during his incarceration and helped with reentry.

He knows that others inside the DDU are not as fortunate. "A lot of guys back there are my friends. I have a great deal of concern for them," he says.
Many of these men do not have family or friends to support them during their imprisonment or after they are released, according to Dellelo. Nor do they have the personal resources he was able to muster during his time in the unit. He says he worries most about those who, on the surface, seem to be adjusting.

"You are adjusting to an abnormal normal," Dellelo says. "When you say you are adjusting, you are adjusting to insanity."

Robert Preer is a freelance writer living in Milton. His last story for the magazine was a profile of marathoner Patti Catalano Dillon.
2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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Old 04-25-2004, 04:11 PM
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THanks for the article.. visited brian there for 3 1/2 years not nice

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Old 04-29-2004, 10:01 AM
irisheyes66 irisheyes66 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ms.Heather
For one hour a day, he was taken out of the cell, in shackles and handcuffs, either to the shower or, along with other inmates, to an outdoor exercise cage that looks like an oversize dog kennel.

Dellelo realized he was in trouble when he met with his attorney once and had a panic attack when she shifted her body in her chair. When she asked him questions, he says, his mind went blank. He returned to his cell dazed. "I said to myself, 'What the [expletive] was that all about? What just happened?' " After a while, he understood that he had become used to communicating with people through his cell door and seeing only their heads. Normal body language had become foreign to him, and deeply disturbing.

"I had done a lot of time in segregation and isolation, but I was not psychologically prepared for the DDU," Dellello says. "Very surreptitiously, it takes you down."
MsHeather, thanks for posting this article...it is extremely well-written and concise.

Shawn has been in and out of prison since the age of 17 (he will be 34 soon); first in Missouri, now in Kansas. But it was not until he was introduced to the lengthy terms of administrative segregation in 1997 that his depression began to take on a life of its own. Isolation, coupled with mind-bending guilt over his crime (murder), has driven him to self-mutilate and attempt suicide more times than I care to admit.

Preer's article gives an insightful look at the consequences of sensory deprivation, and the pitfalls of a system that places the desire for punishment over the need for rehabilitation. Not surprisingly, the letters to the editor in response to the article are slanted by anti-prisoner sentiment. Good old "eye for an eye" justice is alive and well in the U.S.A.

Sleep well, everyone.
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Old 03-23-2008, 05:01 PM
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thank you so much for this article!!! for posting it..it's very interesting... my penpal is right there, in the mci cedar junction DDU...has been for one year, 6months to go. it kills me to know that he has to be in a place like this...I had no idea..
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Old 03-25-2008, 01:26 PM
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The man who killed 4 family members, two of them pregnant at the time of the murders is housed again at Marylands SuperMax, over the past 20 years he has tried to escape 4 or 5 times, where do we incarcerate inmates like him? The type who should never be allowed out on the street again. How much do we care about his mental abilities, his psychological well being? I think to place inmates who have the chance to be back in normal society in isolation is some kind of criminal. At some point we have to determine, are we trying to rehabilitate or just house those people. There are no good answers to any of these questions. In the end, it all comes down to $$ that any State is willing to spend.
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Old 03-31-2008, 08:59 PM
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Didn't anyone pick up on Daniel Tavares in this article? hes the man who, when he was released killed that couple this winter. Interesting.
Ms Dennehy is no longer in there, and only time will tell how much Governor Patrick will contribute to reform.
BTW- Another inmate in this article was released last year and is still, to the best of my knowlege, doing well out there after participating in programming that he says helped him.
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