Magazine article The Nation

Brainwashing in America? the Women of Lexington Prison

Magazine article The Nation

Brainwashing in America? the Women of Lexington Prison

Article excerpt


The Women of Lexington Prison

On October 29, 1986, the United States Bureau ofPrisons formally opened a special facility for "high security' women prisoners in Lexington, Kentucky. Built to house sixteen inmates and the result of more than a decade's planning, the Female High Security Unit (H.S.U.) is a kind of prison within a prison, occupying the basement of the Federal Correctional Institute. The unit's first two inmates were Alejandrina Torres, a 49-year-old Puerto Rican nationalist, and Susan Rosenberg, 31, a self-proclaimed revolutionary.

The Lexington unit is America's second high-securityprison. The other is the Federal prison at Marion, Illinois, which has the dubious distinction of being the first penitentiary in the United States to be investigated by Amnesty International. On June 4 the human rights group announced its finding that conditions at Marion amounted to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,' in violation of the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners promulgated by the United Nations.

The Marion prison was built to house inmates who hadpresented disciplinary problems. The mission of the H.S.U. at Lexington is hazy, but it is not to reform or rehabilitate its inmates, who are assigned there by the director of the Bureau of Prisons.

The two women at H.S.U. are confined to subterraneancells twenty-three hours a day. They are permitted one hour of exercise in a yard measuring fifty feet square; upon their return they are strip-searched. That daily outing is the only time they see sunlight, except when they leave the facility for medical or dental treatment. On those occasions they are handcuffed and manacled by chains around their waists. In their cells they are kept under constant surveillance by guards or television cameras. Whenever they leave the cells, even to take a shower, they must be accompanied by guards.

Torres and Rosenberg charge that they are the subjects ofa pilot study of behavior-modification methods, which are being tested on them and will be applied to future inhabitants of the H.S.U. They say that they are exposed to various forms of sensory deprivation designed to alter their personalities. The lights in their cells glare down on them continuously, and they are forbidden to cover them in any way. Nor are they allowed to place photographs or pictures on the walls. They may wear only prison-issue shoes, undergarments, drab shirts and culottes. Virtually the only contact they are allowed with the outside world consists of a fifteen-minute telephone call to their lawyers each week and a visit with members of their families, separated by a glass partition, once a month. Guards are instructed not to converse with them. They are denied access to the prison library as well as the entertainment and recreational facilities. They may read only magazines, books and newspapers that are approved by prison officials, and are permitted only five books at any one time. For companionship they have a color television set in their cells. "Only in America,' says Rosenberg, "can you abuse people, take away their human dignity, and then given them a TV and that makes it O.K.'

Rosenberg's lawyer, Mary O'Melveny, who was allowedto visit her client on December 14 and 15 of last year, recorded these impressions of conditions at the H.S.U.:

Imagine a world without color, any color. Only bright, high-glossy white, everywhere one looks. Even uniforms--ludicrous clothes selected for their "feminine' look--are bleached out. Nothing is permitted to brighten up, or even add contrast to, these bleak, colorless surroundings.

Next, imagine a world without daylight, without fresh air.Only artificial fluorescent lights--on all of the time. Artificial air--too hot or too cold but never real. The prison pallor one reads of takes on new meaning; both women looked gray. . . .

The overwhelming sense of loneliness of this place is all-pervading, the isolation is overwhelming. …

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