The United States Penitentiary at Marion, located in southern Illinois, opened in 1963 to replace Alcatraz which closed that same year. Until recently, Marion was the highest maximum security prison in the country, and the only one with a "level 6" security rating. Marion has been condemned by Amnesty International for violating the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Despite this international condemnation, Marion became an experimental laboratory and trend setter for the entire federal prison system.

Since 1983, Marion Prison has been in a state of permanent "lockdown". Prisoners are locked in their cells 22.5 hours a day, and all standard vocational educational and recreational activities are virtually nonexistent. The cells are 8 feet by 10 feet and contain a tv, bed, toilet and sink. Prisoners are forced to sleep, eat and defecate in their cells. They are also forbidden to socialize with each other or to participate in group religious services. Those who misbehave in their cells (an arbitrary determination made by the guard on duty) may be tied spread-eagle and naked, on their concrete slab beds. At other prisons a typical lockdown may last several days to a week. At Marion, however, the lockdown is permanent, and the entire prison has been transformed into a "Control Unit." The objective is absolute physical and psychological control over the prisoners.


In November of 1994 the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opened a new maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. Modeled after Marion, the Administrative Maximum Unit Prison (ADX) in Florence intensifies the repressive techniques of isolation and sensory deprivation. As at Marion, prisoners are forced to eat, sleep, and defecate in their cells and are allowed out of their cells for an extremely limited amount of time. In D, F, and G units (considered general population), out-of-cell time is a total of nine hours a week -- three times a week for three hours with one other person. The lighting is designed to prohibit sunlight: a slit 3 inches wide and 3 feet long facing a wall or rec yard and a florescent light strip provide the only illumination. The furniture is gray concrete built into white walls with drab green trim. The cells are sealed off with two steel doors, one barred, and the other solid steel. This steel and cement cage prohibits any communication between prisoners. Even contact with prison officials is limited. ADX Florence is designed so that one guard can control the movements of numerous prisoners in several cell blocks by way of electronic doors, cameras and audio equipment. "These guys will never be out of their cells, much less in the yard or anywhere around here," says Russ Martin, the project manager for the Florence prison. Puerto Rican Prisoner of War Oscar Lopez Rivera states that "isolation is perfected here, both in the structure of the cell and in the very limited communication. People don't realize the value of human intercourse until it's denied."

The psychological effects of isolation are extremely detrimental. As early as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that extended solitary confinement was "infamous punishment" and causes severe mental impairment. The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that hallucinations, anxiety attacks, problems with impulse control, and self-mutilation can result from solitary confinement. Even the U.S. Congress admitted in 1985 and 1990 they were concerned about the amount of time prisoners were spending in their cells. Prisoners at Marion have reported that isolation encourages more anger and rage, resulting in less self-control and more violence. Prison officials may choose to ignore the harmful effects of isolation and sensory deprivation. However, 90% of these prisoners will ultimately be released from prison. Political prisoner (?) Ray Levasseur says, "If I lock you up in your bathroom for 22 hours a day," you're not going to get into too much trouble. But when they let you out, you're going to get into trouble you would never have seen before. I have never met anyone who's been exposed to isolation and abuse whose attitude didn't harden."

ADX Florence has technologically perfected the Marion tradition of behavior modification. Strip searches, metal detectors and constant video surveillance are common practice at Florence. Excessive and humiliating, these control methods serve only as intimidation techniques. Oscar Lopez Rivera reports that initially strip searches, accompanied by painful probes, were almost a daily, routine part of the program, as was sleep deprivation. "In three weeks I hadn't slept one single night without being awakened every hour on the hour" wrote Oscar. (This has changed, at least for now, as the result of a successful political campaign.)


The BOP claims that Marion and Florence are needed to contain "problem" prisoners with "high security ratings". Creating control units, claims the government, will create safer conditions in other prisons. However, those at Marion have never been "the highest security inmates." Some have been, and some have not, just as in all maximum security prisons. Many were sent to Marion because they wrote "too many" law suits, participated in work stoppages, or pursued their religious and political beliefs. Ray Levasseur and Yu Kikumura were sent to Marion straight from court and are now in Florence ADX. BOP papers document that Mutulu Shakur was moved to Marion because he was effectively organizing young Black prisoners. The warden of Lewisburg, in recommending his transfer, wrote the following: "I firmly believe Shakur needs the controls of Marion, as he appears to manipulate the entire system. This shrewd behavior coupled with his outside contacts and influence over the younger Black element will have adverse affects on the mission." Another prisoner was told he was sent to ADX "to build the population" but that his placement was justified because of a fight he'd been in at one of the USPs a few years ago.

Former U.S. Representative Robert Kastenmeier, the past head of the committee that oversees prisons, has acknowledged the existence of political prisoners at Marion, and said, "[they] do not need the degree of maximum security, in my view, that they're subjected to." Despite his statements, the BOP has already transferred many of the prisoners at Marion to Florence and increased the "security" conditions there by way of more advanced and high-tech equipment. The terror that Marion and Florence represent hangs over the rest of the prison system like a giant club.


In a move reminiscent of the toxic water used to poison prisoners at Marion, the BOP picked an area of Florence that may be equally detrimental for the prisoners' health. Just five miles from the prison, in Lincoln Park, there is the notorious Cotter Corporation, a uranium milling company owned and run by Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, Illinois. A class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court, in Denver, by over 340 people against Cotter, Santa Fe railroad and others claiming diminution of land value due to radioactive contamination. The contamination is not just limited to the Cotter site. Radioactive materials were found at the Santa Fe depot near downtown Canon City and a railroad site north of Cotter. The railroad sites were used to load and unload uranium ore containing Thorium 230 and Protactinium 231, some of the highest radioactive materials known. Cotter was sued by the state of Colorado in 1983 for the extensive contamination and they settled for $15 million and a promise to clean up the mill site, but not including the railroad sites.

The presence and risks of uranium in the water, soil and air is of imminent concern. Cotter stored its tailings (the remnants in the milling process) in tailing ponds, which have subsequently leaked into the underground water source. Cotter itself estimates over 19.9 tons of extremely hazardous dust were released annually from the mill. Experts on radiation diseases believe the radioactive dust to be the most threatening and dangerous source of contamination. Due to the water contamination alone the Lincoln Park area has been on the Environmental Protection Agency's national Priorities List since 1984 and has been designated a Superfund site for contamination clean-up.


Residents in the Canon City and Florence area were overwhelmingly in favor of this new prison complex. They managed to raise $160,000 to purchase the 600 acres for the prison site; 400 locals gathered for the ground breaking; t-shirts bearing a map of the site were "sold out" at $7.99. Although the enthusiastic attitude of many of the locals is reprehensible, it's hardly a surprise. Ten years ago when the U.S. proposed a new prison the general climate was to run prison authorities out of town. Now, due to increasing economic hardships, prisons are welcomed with open arms.

It is estimated that the prison will generate about 1000 temporary jobs for the poverty stricken area and about 750 to 900 permanent job s. Pueblo Community College has capitalized on this opportunity by "customizing" its "criminal justice" courses to suit the needs of the federal prison. The college is trying to work out a deal where students of these customized classes would be guaranteed an interview with the prison. Canon City is currently the home of at least six state prisons. Already the $168.5 million prison has helped Florence put in a new water supply, restore their Realto Theatre, and build a new golf course.


Control unit prisons are proliferating. In addition to the state run prisons at Pelican Bay, California, Shawangunk, New York, and Ionia, Michigan, the BOP is planning an entire new federal prison in Massachusetts. The estimated cost per prisoner is $800,000 for construction alone. Sam Calbone, deputy regional director for the BOP said prisoncrats nation-wide will look to Florence because "this will be a model for other correctional complexes."

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared on Florence indicates the BOP has examined 60 more sites and plans to draft EIS's (a serious step) for 20 new project sites. In fact, a map in the EIS shows that a new facility is currently being developed in Puerto Rico. Newspaper accounts relate that Florence is only the first of seven federal prisons to be built across the U.S. in the next six years!

Marion is a violent attack on human rights. Florence is even worse -- an outrage! As Oscar Lopez Rivera writes, "The demonization of the prisoner is the basis used by the jailers to justify this place. Both the physical environment and the mind set of the jailers have been created to treat the prisoner not as a human being but as a beast. Once the prisoner is stripped of his humanity any measure to incapacitate him is acceptable and justifiable." People of good will, people who want a society based on true human values, must work to end the lockdown at Marion and now Florence.

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