STOREHOUSES OF THE LIVING DEAD
For prison reformers, the problem wasn't just that the incarcerated population kept ballooning, or that more and more counties in the United States' increasingly dilapidated hinterlands were seeking correctional facilities to house this population. An equally pressing issue was the types of prisons that were sprouting up, and the ultrasecure modifications being designed for existing sites.
As the number of prisoners and the number of prisons grew in the 1980s and 1990s, belief in the rehabilitative function of incarceration declined. “Rehabilitation” suggested softness in an age when the political climate cried out for hardness. It implied a social-work function for prison guards and correctional personnel at a time when politicians and their voters seemed to want only punishment. “In the nineties,” stated American Correctional Association president Gwen Chunn, who cut her teeth as a correctional reformer in the 1970s, “the notion of 'Get tough' came from the very top and permeated the entire system.”
Not surprisingly, as more prisoners were manufactured by posturing tough-on-crime legislators, and more towns and villages turned themselves into hubs for the burgeoning incarceration industry, conditions within many prisons headed south. Sometimes, through overcrowding and pennypinching, the conditions seemed simply to drift that way, almost without being guided. “When you have a system that is terribly overcrowded and when you have cutbacks in the economy, you automatically set up a situation that predicts a lot of things,” Chunn averred. At other times, the move into harsher incarceration terrain was very much a calculated result, a deliberate attempt to “toughen up” the conditions of confinement, to create supermax prisons and control units within which increasingly large numbers of inmates would be confined. Euphemistically termed “adjustment centers,” they were in a way the brass knuckles of incarceration, instruments designed to mentally break and crush the most dangerous, troublesome prisoners.