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PART 2. The United States: A Prison Nation/Supermax Prisons and SHU Units

Updated on November 26, 2013

A Prison Nation


My 100th Hub

Since this is my 100th hub and kind of a milestone for me, I would like to dedicate it to my passion " Justice and The Criminal justice System in The U.S". It is an issue near and dear to my heart. As a former Correctional Officer, Court Official, and someone who has a loved one on the inside, I know the system and the issues from both perspectives. I would like to say I am unbiased, but I can no longer do that. I am now disabled but dedicate all of my free time to the research,and help to those in the system. This is a ten part series. I hope you enjoy it and will leave feedback and comments. It will take a little time to finish it since I want my articles to be accurate, A lot of research is required and alot of time in interviewing and checking for statistics. If there are any questions I can try to answer for you, please leave them or contact me at my personal email. GOD BLESS and KEEP YOU!!


Supermax Prisons

"Correctional bereaucrats have devised a systemically humiliating and, indeed, dehumanizing regimen of punishments for prisoners who elsewhere would be considered disturbed."

Sasha Abramsky, freelance journalist and author of Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation.

In this authors viewpoint, while the use of supermax prisons may be necessary as a last resort for "the worst of the worst" offenders, evidence has shown that the use of the SHU is commonly over used to hold less troublesome inmates. According to psychiatric testimony, the sensory deprivation of supermax confinement has resulted in extreme psychosis in many offenders. the sensory deprevation and isolation of the supermax has made some offenders who were not previously mentally ill or violent become so, thus posing a higher risk to society when they are released.

State Torture Chamber:

Pelican Bay State Torture Chamber is located in one of the most beautiful areas of California, close to the Pacific Ocean and near redwood forests. Three square miles of forest were cut to build a humongous torture chamber to encage 1,500 human beings. The prisoners in Pelican Bay can not see the trees or the ocean or even a glimpse of the sun, the moon, or the clouds. They hear no sounds, the birds, the wind, nor the ocean. There is not one blade of grass or a weed to be seen. The prison is surrounded by three wire fences, two are chain link with razor wire at the top, the third is sandwiched in between these two and is an electric fence that kills on contact.

This description of the Pelican Bay Supermax is from Donna Wallach's article "A visit to Pelican Bay Torture Chamber" San Francisco Bay View, October 30, 2002.

Supermax Prisons: A Little History

Supermax facilities emerged in the 1970s and the 1980s as the result of a wave of violence that resulted in the deaths of dozens of correctional officers across the country.

In the Supermax Facilities there is limited staff to inmate contact and no inmate to inmate contact. One hour of exercise is provided once a day in an even smaller cage, there is no communal dining, and no windows. Food is passed through a small slot in the door, and communication is by way of electronic survelliance or intercoms, except in the direst of circumstances. Medical care is scant to say the least. In a Supermax the lockdown period is permanent. In a SHU Unit it can be from 90 days to indefinate. In the supermax units there are no phone priviledges, in the SHU Units one phone call a month is allowed. One letter a week in the SHU Units and none in Supermax. In the Supermax or the SHU Units there is no visitation. Mental illness is highly prevailent in both the Supermax and SHU Units. Studies have shown a 30% rate of serious psychiatric illness among the population of Supermax and SHU Units. Twice that of general population.

The debate on mental illness seems to focus on whether an otherwise previously healthy inmate could be driven insane due to the strict confinement and sensory depravation of the Supermax or SHU Units or could an already unstable inmate with mental illness, who is more unlikely to be able to control their behavior due to being more impulsive, further deteriorate in these conditions? We will debate this in another part of the series.

In the Supermaxes, it is often thought, as in the the U.S. Penal System, that one of the duties of the Correctional Officers is to make the life of the inmate as miserable as possible. In my time as an officer I have found this to be mainly true. Most officers either spend their shifts taunting or punishing the inmates, or just sitting there watching the clock until time to go home. There is no compassion, thought of rehabilitation or any other form of human warmness.

In the 1990s though crime rates were decling the rate of growth of the Supermax facilities was still booming. Tens of millions of dollars were spent in building Shu (Supermax) Units inside existing prisons. The primary purpose of the Supermax and SHU Units was to house the worst of the worst, violent offenders, gangsters, druglords, etc...

The problem is that now the Supermax and SHU Units are commonly overused and not for the purpose they were originally created for, instead they are used to house minimum/low security inmates when the overcrowding becomes too much. They are also used to house the mentally ill and inmates who are involved in minor scrapes. They are also used to punish inmates who defy the guards, or file a grievance. 

Some Photos of Life In The SHU

Cramped quarters in what is supposed to be a one man segregated cell. The flagrant misuse of the SHU facilities make being there even more deplorable.
Cramped quarters in what is supposed to be a one man segregated cell. The flagrant misuse of the SHU facilities make being there even more deplorable.
Search of an inmate cell in the SHU Unit.
Search of an inmate cell in the SHU Unit.

Life Inside the Supermax/SHU Units

I hope I have not taken that long to get it capsule together. It is very special, it contains some letters and blogs from actual inmates inside the SHU Units. You can feel their pain and desperation as they tell you about their lives, their mistakes and the hell they go through in the pathetic conditions of the maximum security units of the United States Prison SHU Units. It is both a shame and a disgrace that if we are able to feel empathy for someone in their condition, that we are considered "bleeding hearts" or worse. In our rush to get tough on crime many have forgotten even the most common shreds of decency, basic requirements to being human and most of all rehabilitation and forgiveness. They will tell you about the living conditions that no human being deserves to be in, the abuse by the staff of the inmates, and most of all the feeling cut off from the world, having no voice and no rights that every human being is born with.

LET'S GO, on a trip inside the worst prison nation in the world!!

" do you have enemies? good, that means you stood up for something, once in your life.

eminem/recording artist

Photos of the World Of Supermax And Shu Units

The heavy steel door that separates the inmate from the world.
The heavy steel door that separates the inmate from the world.
Being shackled from behind is required in any instance where the inmate must leave the cell. Any "Cellys" other inmates in the cell must also be cuffed before the door is opened.
Being shackled from behind is required in any instance where the inmate must leave the cell. Any "Cellys" other inmates in the cell must also be cuffed before the door is opened.

Katfish aka Michael Harris

"Reality at it's best. As close as you will ever get to the inside without actually walking inside the world inside a world. Can You handle the truth?"     

Katfish/Michael Harris, Inmate Shu Unit Big Springs Texas

The following story is from a Katfish aka Michael Harris and a magazine ran by his girlfriend, Nikita. The piece is entitled "Reality inside solitary confinement aka the Hole. I will provide a link to that and other reading materials at the end of the segment. I hope you will take the time to read some of the articles. You will be both surprised and horrified at the information you will find there.

Big Springs, Texas Special Housing Unit SHU- The Bucket

An offender enters the Bucket through two trap doors. The offender is escorted by 2-4 guards at all times with his hands cuffed behind his back and at least one guard leading the ways while the others hold on to the handcuffs. This occurs anytime the offender leaves his cell and is in any of the various wings, hallways, or stairs. The offender will never be out of his cell, recreation area, or interview room without his hands being handcuffed behind him and accompanied by his guards

The clothing inside the SHU Unit is a very loud, bright orange. Emergency colors, the pants, the shirt, the socks, the chinese shoes, even the damn underwear.

The cell is 12x8 ft. The desk to write is a metal wedge in the corner that measures 3ft across, with a stool that is 18 inches high and shaped like a cable spool. it is 11 inches wide. Both are attached to the floor by metal bolts. there is a toilet/sink/water fountain combo in a corner. if you push the button on the water fountain nothing happens...or comes out. The cell has a double bunk, upper and lower. It measures 80 inches long and 27 inches wide. I always hang over the edge. It is welded to the wall an floor with metal plates. There are two half-circle loops at the top, bottom, and one on each side. These are supposed to be to restrain violent inmates, the side ones to hold the hands, the bottom ones to hold the feet and the ones at the top are a mystery. The restraints are made of leather straps or chains, "I am not inclined to find out for myself." the mattress is about 3 inches thick, not soft, and measures 72 inches long and 26 inches wide. Standard issue bedding in the SHU is one blanket, one towel, two sheets, and NO pillows.

The window is opaque plastic which allows light and nothing else in. It is 20 inches across and 44 inches high. It has three squared bars welded into it and is covered entirely by an expanded metal grill welded over it.

The door is a heavy duty, Nazi-bunker affair.36x44 inches. There is a tray slot for passing food trays so you can eat sitting next to the toilet. The slot is also used for cuffing if the offender has to leave the cell. he must stick his hands through the slot backwards to be cuffed from behind, also his cellmates if any. (At times I have had 4 persons in this small 2 person cell). There is also a round hole in the door through which staff/inmate communication is supposed to take place, it is almost completely covered with metal so the inmate can not throw nasty liquids, or spit, in the face of the guards. The metal also acts a soundproof barrier, making it practically useless. The small window in the door is recessed from the metal so it can not be cleaned. It is filthy with lint, dust, dirt and pieces of old food. The floor is concrete and gray, the bunks and walls are a dull yellow like an old smokers walls, the windows and doors are dark brown. There is a shelf beneath the lower bunk where we keep our allowable few items.

There is a long two bulb flourcent light fixture in the cell which is extingushed from 10:30 pm to 6:30 am. It doesn't matter, there is a regular light in the cell that is on 24/7 and is so bright you can read and write by it, which I am doing now.

This is "MY WORLD, The Bucket", punished without reason, held with no charges under an ambiguous "under investigation" clause. They know they have the wrong man, even the officers doing the investigation tell me they know its not me. It is only one Officer keeping me here, the same one who hemmed in Ramon Milian, who had a "My Story" page in the magazine "Tales from the cells". What a coincidence. Or is it?

I have a "bunky" (roommate),Bob, he is in for checking in another inmate (making an inmate request protective custody in the SHU unit). The other guy was his cellmate and was a kinda child molester type.


The recreation cage at Big Springs is one large cage divided into three smaller cages, 2 out of the three have basketball hoops and pull up bars, the other one has a pull up/dipbar combination. the North and west walls are concrete, the other walls are chain link, including the roof. I went out there the other day and all the hoops and bars are gone. Recreation now consists of three cages. EMPTY!

There are other cages. In 05 it was only one, now its four. The other cages are in the middle of the thru-way to the rec cage. they are used for strip searches, urine tests, and interviews. Big Springs SHU Unit has enormous business, due to its misuse of the 90 day investigation clause. Nothing like creating your own job security. F_ _ _ KERS!

Rules state that showers are three times a week, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursdays on my floor. The shower is a caged affair, at the front of each hallway. There are only four showers in the whole SHU Unit. The police must take offenders back and forth all day long. Props to them.

There are some police (correctional officers), that know an inmates life is already miserable and will show kindness. yet there are others who can't wait to get to work so they can power trip on us 8-10 hours a day. I don't mess with the police. I don't don't try to make their lives any harder. I don't mess with anybody, truth be told. But if I hear about outrageous behavior, I look into it, I write it down, and I share it. Misuse of authority is my pet peeve. Deliberate indifference pisses me off mightily. You are learning through my eyes, my ears, and my words.

Finally I think they may be messing with my mail. They can. The cell is crawling with ants. Me and my bunky tried to stop up the cracks with toothpaste. A battle we lost. Struggle on. Is anybody out there? Where are you?

Katfish Update:

"Katfish remains in the SHU Unit past the 90 day max limit. They say his transfer papers are pending. The catch is they can hold you "pending transfer" indefinitely. One man has been in SHU over a year pending transfer."


Owner/Editor "Tales from The cells"

P.O. Box 430

O'Neill, NE 68763

Photos of Fred and Me

Fred before his incarceration, despite not being able to read and write he received his certification as a mental health specialist.
Fred before his incarceration, despite not being able to read and write he received his certification as a mental health specialist.
Me and Fred with my parents before my father passed away.
Me and Fred with my parents before my father passed away.
Me doing research on the process for an appeal.
Me doing research on the process for an appeal.
Reading a letter from Fred.
Reading a letter from Fred.
Wondering how everything went so wrong and pondering what to do now.
Wondering how everything went so wrong and pondering what to do now.

Fred's Story: The SHU Big Springs Texas

Fred is a 58 year old inmate serving a 10 and a 1/2 year sentence in the Big Springs Federal Correctional Institute in Big Springs Texas. He has served 5 years of the sentence. On June 4, 2010 the inmates in his tank were taken outside for their recreation. The day was very hot and an inmate who was confined to a wheelchair was left unattended in the open area of sun. By the time they were called to go inside the disabled inmate did not respond. He was deceased. Fred filed a grivance or complaint saying that the staff were not competent to handle emergencies or inmates with special needs. The next day he was put into the hole under the charge of threatening staff. All because he filed a complaint about what really goes on in the prison. His wife had no idea what had happened to him, she did not hear from him for thirty days, no calls, no letters, nothing. She made repeated calls to the facility trying to determine what had happened to her husband. fred is also a special needs inmate. He suffers from a heart condition, and mental illness, thus having a legitimate reason to worry about his own safety. For this concern he was sentenced to 90 days in the SHU Unit. After getting no response to her inquiries from the case managers and staff, his wife called the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington to file a formal complaint. She had been told he was fine and he probally hadn't called or wrote due to no money in his commissary to purchase stamps or a calling card. She knew this to be untrue since she deposits money monthly. She also called the regional office in Texas to file a complaint. Both times she was passed along to someone else and basically ignored. Regional told her to contact her husbands unit team, but when she called the officer that answered the phone told her they had more important things to do than talk to her and hung up. A letter she received from her husband after 30 days,told her that the charges had been changed to "threatening another inmate and stalking him for sexual purposes" an investigation would was serious. Fred has never been in trouble since his incarceration and was participating in school to learn to read and write and to get his GED, he also held a job...$5.00 a month salary. He kept to himself and had no gang-affliations. He has a clear conduct record form the time he entered the system. Unable to get any information form the facility or the system ( the Federal System, especially in Texas is one of the most secretive) she began soliciting the help to file a Federal Civil Complaint called a Bivens Action for violation of his civil rights. The investigation came up with nothing and still he remains held without charges in the SHU Unit for an additional 90 days. The maximum time for an inmate in SHU is supposed to be 90 days. Since her intervention to help her husband he is being transferred to another unit...LA TUNA a facility, rife with violence, it is also 700 miles from her home in Dallas, making her chances of seeing her husband obsolete. She had asked designations for a transfer to another facility 75 miles from her home. The System knows that she is not allowed to travel more than 100 miles from her residence due to severe medical issues, this is in his record, sent by her doctor to the case manager. Their mail is censored and today he did not get to make the allowed 30 day phone call for inmates in SHU. Both feel this is being done in retaliation for his filing the complaint and her seeking help in assisting him with his legal problems. The conditions in the SHU are deplorable as shown in the story of "Katfish" above.

The Federal System is not required to answer to anyone and an inmates chances of having a Legal Action heard by the court is almost non-existent. She is worried about his safety and mental health as his letters have become almost unreadable and have a dead tone to them. She continues to call everyday hoping that if they know she is looking out for him it may save his life. as a former correctional officer she knows how many (accidental OOPS!!) suicides there are in these places. she has wittnessed first hand the brutality of the staff as retaliation for talking about things you shouldn't. She knows the manner in which guards are put together to write incident reports so their stories match up with each other. The system does not even have to release information to an attorney that represents the inmate. Furthermore an attorney is not allowed at the disiplinary hearing, only the staff appointed officers. Who do you think they will take up for?

She waits now as he does, to see what happens next. the only difference is that she is somewhere safe and he is in the SHU. Subject to abuse, abandonment and the whim of the staff and a corrupt criminal justice system that has to give reason to no one for its actions. Texas has long been criticized for its treatment of inmates. As of 1984 it is not even allowed to control its city and county jails due to "Inhumane conditions and treatment" the federal system has taken control of them. Little consolation for those on the inside or those on the outside waiting for them. The county jail in Dallas has failed 27 inspections in 3 years.

Fred tries to write the best he can but she can tell his emotional state is precarious. Letters are short begging her to do what she can to help him and telling her to always remember that he loves her if anything should happen to him. She writes everyday and has started numbering her letters on the back to see if he receives all of them...until now it is doubtful. Due to her disability she has not seen her husband since he was arrested 5 years ago, she was even unable to attend the trial since her only method of transportation is the Greyhound bus which can not accommodate the three hundred pound wheelchair she needs for mobility. She prays for him everyday and every night. That God will shelter him and keep him safe, he prays that he will see her again and that someone will do the right thing.

The last line of his last letter dated August 3, 2010, "something is going on here, i don't know what, but something is going on here". Please help me...Loving you always, Fred.

In a country where we condemn other countries for the cruel and inhumane treatment of their prisoners, we look the other way when it is our own transgressions. Texas has more persons incarcerated than any state in the united has the highest execution rate of any nation in the world. The current system is corrupt and must be changed to protect all citizens from the intrusion of the basic civil and human rights bestowed on us by God and the United States Constitution. Please help me to change the system. Write your Senators, your Congressman whoever...

Fred is only one of many who suffer the injustices of mass incarceration and what amounts to torture in a system ran by the elite and a government that is so money hungry for the federal money it receives from the long periods of incarceration that it has forgotten about justice, rehabilitation and human dignity. God bless You!!

This story is told by Christal Luna since Fred is unable to speak for himself due to censorship.

Christal Luna/Hub page author/former correctional officer/ Former court official/ Activist/Wife of Fred Luna

Please checkout the hub " Life on the inside, a correctional officers view".

Update on Fred 10/13/10

Fred remains in SHU with no charges. The so called investigation rendered nothing, so now he is being held as Katfish PENDING TRANSFER. Remember that I told you an inmate can be held indefinitely pending transfer. I have asked repeatedly for him to be transferred to Seagoville where it would be possible for me to visit him as well as our children, but it looks bleak. He continues to write me once a week, I write everyday. He receives one phone call every 30 days, this month we talked for only 4 minutes before being cut off. The phone calls are supposed to be 10 minutes. His stay in SHU was extended to another 90 days  for the simple excuse of pending transfer. I have joined a prison reform Organization called CURE and will run the Texas Chapter soon. It is an issue very dear to my heart not just because of my husband but the many others who are being unjustly held and unjustly treated by the Department of Corrections in Texas. I miss him more than ever and send the little I can on my disability because I know how how hard it is on the "inside". I look forward to working with the organization and the many families and inmates who need assistance. As for Fred he continues to make me feel like its okay and nothing is wrong, though it is all an act not to worry me. I have tried to get papers relating to the incident but to no avail. I will continue to struggle and fight for Fred and all the others who are hostages of the State and Federal System here in the United States. I have not seen my husband in 5 years, it will be 5 years more. Unless the Prison System is reformed not only are the inmates victims but also the wives and children left behind.


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    • christalluna1124 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Dallas Texas


      It is so good to see you again. thanks for continuing to read my hubs. i am sorry again for taking so long to answer your comment. I haven't had internet for over a month.

      Many states have very lienent prison units, this is not the case in Texas where the state has not been allowed to run its city and county jails due to the inhumane conditions.The SHU units I have mentioned above are extremely harsh and dehumanizing. I worked in them for over 25 years. As for them being better than the environment the offender came from, that is a plus in many cases. The majority of the inmates in Texas are illiterate and poor. The suggestion of replacing the other things with books is an excellent idea, but that alone will not help the person to be rehabilitated to become a productive member of society upon his release, thus returning him to the exact things that put many of the offenders there in the first place. The cuts to educational programs and skills training have been devastating. The food is prepared by the inmates in many of the facilities and they do hold jobs that pay a mere $ 5.00 a month. It smacks of slave labor. Punishment is an important part of the criminal justice system but so should rehabilation be, if not we will continue to see the same persons coming back, again and again. Also the laws that now prohibit inmates from receiving food stamps, housing and educational loans is also a barrier to the re-intergration of the offender back into society. Texas does not allow smoking and has no access to PC's and the punishments are harsh to the extreme. The above are only some example of the abuse of power suffered by the inmates at the hands of staff. i am not sure what the answer is but the current system is clearly not working.

      warmest regards,


    • pmccray profile image


      10 years ago from Utah

      I do agree that the mentally ill should not be housed with general population. But, I feel that prisons are not harsh enough. We make them better than the environment some come from. I've always felt that these institutions should be a place that inmates don't want to return to.

      All TV's, PC, exercise equipment and the like should be removed and replaced with books. No smoking and continued bad behavior should have harsher punishments meted out. Food, clothing and whatever else needed by inmates should be produce by the inmates, so the prisons can be self sufficient.

      Excellent and informative hubs.

    • christalluna1124 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Dallas Texas


      So good to see you again. I hope you make it back to read the new addition to this article. I don't know the answer either but i do know it is not to keep locking up non-violent and mentally ill offenders...maybe community service where instead of paying to keep them they could reimburse the state. This article is going to explore many aspects of the criminal justice system. I hope you enjoyed it.

      Warmest regards,


    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      10 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I don,t know the answer, but i do know that the people with mental problems should not be housed with criminals, take the case of Jeffery Dolmer ( spelled wrong) he was beaten to death, he should have been placed in an institution for the insane.

      Thank,s Cheers

    • christalluna1124 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Dallas Texas


      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It has become painfully obvious that the intent of the criminal justice system in the United States has changed from rehabilitation to inflicting pain, punishment and shame on the individual who is incarcerated. This is very sad since it only makes that person more of a threat to society if he is ever released. I hope you will stop by again soon and leave your comments. This series will be an interesting read but is taking time to complete due the vast amount of research on the subject.

      warmest regards,


    • someonewhoknows profile image


      10 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      We have decided that this is how we should treat people who need rehabilitation?


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