Solitary Supermax

“Prison’s darkest place”, an interview with Sharon Shalev by Luk Vervaet

SharonShalev2017 (1)(photo : Sharon Shalev)

25 January 2017

Sharon Shalev is one of the world’s most prominent voices on solitary confinement. Since the mid-1990s, she has been working on the theme of the use and abuse of solitary confinement in the US, publishing A sourcebook on Solitary Confinement (2008), and, subsequently in 2009, the book now considered a classic on the subject, Supermax : controlling risk trough solitary confinement. Sharon Shalev created the website  and was part of a team of experts who considered different drafts of international resolutions to regulate and limit the growing (ab)use of solitary confinement, including the UN Mandela Rules and the Istanbul Statement. In recent years, she has turned her attention to the use of solitary confinement in Europe and elsewhere.

If you tell someone about your country and where you live, the other person will probably react by saying that he or she visited this or that city long ago, how beautiful the landscape was and how nice or unpleasant people and restaurants were. Not so with Sharon Shalev. When we started the interview and, after introducing myself as a former prison teacher in Belgium, she reacted with a little story about Bruges. Not about its historical castles and ancient bridges and canals, but about her visit to the modern prison of Bruges and its isolation section AIBV, Afdeling voor Bijzondere Individuele Veiligheid. (Section for particular individual security). Her story reminded me of what someone said to me when I was in Morocco for the court case of Ali Aarrass: “if you want to know Morocco don’t go to the beaches, but visit its prisons and hospitals”. Sharon Shalev reminded me that this is true for every country all over the world.

Prison de BrugesSharon Shalev: “I can’t remember the exact year, it was a few years ago, when we were visiting the AIBV in Bruges (photo). They had to escort a prisoner into that unit, we were there with the prison doctor and with some academics, five or six of us. And while this escort was going on, they made all of us stay in a room and they locked us all up inside that room. For me this was a bit over the top, they were very paranoid, for lack of a better word to describe it.

Luk Vervaet: The worst isolation place I visited was in Holland, the EBI (Extra Beveiligde Inrichting – the Super secured institution) in Vught…

Sharon Shalev: Yes, I’ve been in Vught too. But in terms of isolation I felt the one in Bruges was worse.Vught 3

Even in Vught there was human interaction. The guards spoke in human terms about the prisoners. In Bruges there was none of that. It was as if they were convincing themselves that prisoners were capable of anything. I remember they were talking about this one man. He was convicted for terrorism, he is very famous in Belgium, I can’t remember his name… They said that he couldn’t have face to face family visits at all, because they were concerned that he would kidnap his own child. All his visits were behind glass. I thought to myself, you must be someone very special to even consider doing something like that.

LV: The AIBV initially opened with a medical mission to isolate and treat people who were self-harming, or displaying violent behavior against others, prisoners or guards, but it was soon used as a place where convicted terrorists could be incarcerated. Since the Paris and Brussels terror attacks it’s now even used for pre-trial detainees accused of terrorism…

Sharon Shalev: About these terrorists or so-called terrorists… in general they are very well-behaved in prison. So, all these reasons saying that they are very dangerous, there’s no issue there. They may be very dangerous on the outside, scary individuals that plan to do scary things to the world, and I do not agree with their ideologies, but as prisoners they are actually good prisoners. Radicalization is a different issue, but in themselves they behave well, they are quiet, polite, mellow. So, all this talk about someone kidnapping their own child sounded a bit exaggerated. I don’t know if they mean this seriously, but it doesn’t make much sense.

LV: A question I receive regularly is, why are you involved with prisoners, why did you become a prison teacher, when you could have taught somewhere else? In your case, as you are working on issues of solitary confinement and supermax prisons, it’s even more complicated as you are occupied with the ones who are on the extreme edge of the line, the ‘worst of the worst’. Is there a personal experience or event in your life that made you decide to start this kind of work?

Solitary confinementSharon Shalev: There is not an event in my life explaining that. But I think that prisons are a dark place in society. And inside prison, solitary confinement is the darkest place. Few people can go in there. I don’t like secret places and I don’t like what can be done to people in secret places. I made it my job, not with the ambition to do something grandiose, to let a bit of light shine into that dark corner. I think it’s interesting how resilient people, human beings, cope with being alone with only themselves for company. And of course, as a human rights person I’m interested in a place that is so open to abuse. It’s not a coincidence that torture, secret interrogation… all that happens in solitary confinement. So, no personal event, none of my family members has ever been in solitary confinement. I haven’t been in it myself. I just think it’s an important area and it’s interesting and fascinating.

LV: Stan Cohen in 2013, Nils Christie in 2015, Zygmunt Bauman in 2017,  we  have lost some very important thinkers on the carceral world. At some point they are all present in your work. How have these people influenced your work?  

Sharon Shalev: Stan Cohen was my supervisor and he was a friend. I knew him from my human rights years in Israel. I met him in 1993 when I worked with Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, organising a conference on torture in Israel. It was the first time ever, that any one put those two words together: torture and Israel. You know, “in Israel we don’t torture people, that doesn’t happen”. Stan was one of the speakers at this international conference. And then I came the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) where he worked, to write my PhD.  People like Stan or Bauman or Christie –  obviously massive intellectual brains –  helped us understand how human beings cope with extreme situations, how people are doing things and how things are done to them. You know another important person, and a lovely man, died today. Nigel Rodley. He was a key person in the human rights world, formerly the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, President of the international commission of jurists (ICJ), member of the UN Human Rights Committee… It’s sad.

LV: About the theoretical work and work of academics in general, there is often a big gap between their writings and the work people do on the ground. Your work seems to give the latter a working tool, a framework where people can then place their experience within?  

Sharon ShaIev: I’m not so much interested in theoretical work. That is why my academic standing is a bit unusual. I do good work I think, I publish, but I’m not theoretical. And so some say: oh she is writing things that people can actually understand. Some of us use twenty words when you can use one… why not say things simply.

LV: Solitary confinement goes back to the beginning of incarceration itself. What is the same and what is different?

Sharon Shalev: In many ways, very little is different. The actual conditions are remarkably similar to the ones in the past, like being most of the day alone in a cell, walking alone in the yard.

One key thing that is different is that in the past the official vision started out from a good intention, to change people. Even if I have a problem with this intention to change people, the intention was for people, through silence and isolation, to see the light, to become better individuals. In the past, the formal intention, very much influenced by religious leaders, was a good and positive one. Stan Cohen and I had endless conversations about “do intentions matter?”. And if good intention matters, what about the bad things which result from it?  It’s a very interesting question. In the end, I think that what matters is the bottom line, and that is that we are doing nasty things. But today, there is not even this good intention, the only thing you hear people say is: we don’t do any bad. Nobody says we are actually doing something good. They say, ‘we don’t have the choice’.

saint-gilles-prisonnier capuchonLV: Some 200 years ago, prisoners in the prison of St Gilles in Brussel were held in isolation. And when they came out of the cell they were hooded, only their eyes were visible (photo)…

Sharon Shalev:… It was for their protection. People then thought about crime as a disease. So to make sure there was no cross contamination, people could not see each other at all. They don’t do this anymore, except in Guantanamo they did. We will of course find other differences today, like the presence of television in the cells. It’s again an interesting question: does television change something? Of course, it helps to pass time. Of course, it’s better than nothing. But you create a very strange reality for prisoners, if everything they get comes from a television. And they make sure, like in the US, that people don’t have access to local news channels, so they cut them off from their communities. Also, they use television to say that after all solitary confinement is not so bad, because they provide television. And this is not the solution.

LV: Television is like administrating a drug, to keep them calm?

Sharon Shalev: It’s actually like in the past, because in the old days they had the bible. The principle is similar.

LV: What is your definition of solitary confinement?

Sharon Shalev: For me it is a very simple definition:  the individual spends 22 hours or more a day locked up in a cell. But then you can ask me why is it 22 and not 23 or 24. My definition used to be 23 hours a day. But I encountered a lot of prison officials and they said: “Ha ! We don’t do solitary confinement because we give them an hour and fifty minutes out of their cells”.

The Nelson Mandela rules picture smallSo now we have the new definition of the UN, the Mandela Rules, minimum rules; they were revised a couple of years ago and approved by the UN in 2015, and they offer a definition of solitary confinement as 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact.

LV: What is the significance of “meaningful human contact”?

Sharon ShaIev:  I was part of an NGO expert group who helped to draft the Mandela Rules. The idea behind adding the notion of meaningful human interaction was to avoid a situation in which the authorities could say, “Oh we give them a human contact with a guard when we serve them their meal”. This is not a meaningful human interaction.  Meaningful human interaction is a notion that comes from the Istanbul Statement on solitary confinement of 2007. It was signed by various experts and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture at the time. ( ) , and Juan Mendez, the new UN Rapporteur on Torture used it in several key reports on solitary confinement.

This is not to say I don’t have a problem with this definition because ‘meaningful’ is not a legal term. Prison authorities say, we have meaningful contacts so there is not a problem. Meaningful is a problematic term, but anyway this is the current definition.

LV: Another element is the duration?

Sharon Shalev: Solitary confinement is prohibited beyond fifteen days in duration. After that the potential of solitary confinement constituting a form of torture and mistreatment increases.

LV: “Lock the worst of the worst up, separate them from the others, we have no other choice”. What is your opinion about this argument? Nils Christie said, “during my whole career in prison, I never met a monster.” Is that your opinion as well?

Sharon Shalev: That I never met a monster in prison is not my opinion, it’s my experience. Let’s say I never met a monster yet! Who knows, maybe one day, but probably not in solitary confinement… (laughs). I met creepy people, people I would not share my address with, not be friends with. But I don’t see why these people must be locked away behind seven different layers of isolation, saying that otherwise it’s too dangerous.

“The worst of the worst” is about labeling people. If you put a label on someone, then that person is more inclined to become like that. People start checking him like that, start thinking about him as that kind of person, and then this person is more inclined to become what you say about him.

LV: A kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?

Sharon Shalev: Exactly. And we must remember that one day these people will come out of prison, and then what we will do? In the US they say that these people are so scary and dangerous that you cannot have anyone come near them. But then when these same people are released straight back into the community, they find themselves out in the streets, with nothing. So wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. Most people come out of prison, not all, but most.

LV: But, then, now maybe the general opinion is, these people shouldn’t come out any more.

Sharon Shalev: Well what people think, like with the question of Trump and Brexit, I have to except this. But we cannot make our positions and our politics based on the way people think. I believe in education, people are not wicked or nasty, they are not stupid. If you will explain properly what it’s about, then they will understand.

America's hardest prisonsLV: In this image-building of the worst of the worst, there is also an important role played by the media? (photo)

Sharon Shalev: programmes like ‘America’s worst prisons’! It’s very sensational and very selling, all these scary people. It’s another thing that hasn’t changed since 200 years ago. It’s very easy to sensationalize difficult situations.

LV: Is this the central question: how do you handle difficult people? By being more human or by isolating them, pushing them into a corner and squeezing them?

Sharon Shalev: These are two different things. First of all, we must treat everyone with humanity. And especially the most difficult people. Try to go down to the bottom line of a person, and there often you will find terrible childhood, terrible personal histories, broken lives.  You need to work with different tools with these people rather than oppress them. And, then, maybe some of those people do need to spend some time out of the general population, but you need to work with them. Not just lock them in a room, leave them there and not doing anything with them. Nothing is happening with them in all the countries I have been to. For all kinds of reasons.

LV: A lack of political will?

Sharon Shalev: As you have read in my book, it’s politically very convenient. Since politicians cannot do much about crime, they say, “look, you see, we have these wonderful high security prisons and units. Don’t worry you won’t ever hear from these criminals again.” Of course, it doesn’t work like that.

LV: In Europe things are done on smaller scale and the way of doing solitary confinement in Europe is different than in the US. Yet you do you see an evolution in Europe towards a more American way of treating prisoners.

comment déradicaliser en prisonSharon Shalev: Had I been a religious person, I’d say I pray it’s not the case. But I see this trend especially when it’s about treating radical prisoners. They are opening special sections or prisons in Belgium, in France, they talk about smaller units in different prisons. I think there is no general appetite to have supermax prisons in Europe like in the US. But the question of how we deal with radical prisoners- national security mixed with radical individuals, that’s a dangerous recipe.

LV: But in Europe, there are voices, even rather progressive ones, who reclaim these special high security prisons to lock up the dangerous and radicalized people

Sharon Shalev: People don’t think. They don’t think about what is the intention? And they don’t think ahead. They think about immediate answers, not about the second step. Obviously, you put them in a special prison, and then what. Do you think you can cut people off from the outside world? It’s an illusion. People will communicate, they will find a way. So what is the purpose? What will they do in this special unit or prison? These radical people are treated just in the way they expect to be treated, corresponding to their radical views. Before it was about drug dealers and gang members, now it’s shifting to radicals. A different population we decided to define as ‘others’. It’s useless. It is also a form of collective punishment. My key problem is that there is not enough thinking going on what is the purpose of the things we are doing.

LV: Are Britain and France are leading the way in this evolution? And do we see also another evolution being the “Scandinavian model” or Holland closing its prisons…

Scandinavian prisons isolationSharon Shalev: I don’t know if Britain or France are leading the way and if there is a real appetite in Britain for supermax prisons. But all the things that are said about the Scandinavian countries and how great things are there, are just not true. They have good prisons of course but they also have some problematic practices which are really not very good. For example, they hold pre-trial detainees in isolation, in very serious isolation, including sometimes no watches, no calendars; and this is done to people who are by law considered as innocent until and unless proven guilty, a basic principle of our legal system.

(Photo :  Børge Helstrøm, Flickr, The Scandinavian Solitary confinement network

I visited several solitary confinement units in prisons in Norway and in Denmark, and they weren’t good. The Scandinavian societies are very homogenous societies, small societies, everyone knows everyone and when you fall outside of this, you will be treated quite differently. It’s not like Belgium or Britain where we have so many foreigners, and where we don’t have that sense of cohesiveness.

LV: Talking about the Scandinavian countries, there is the case of Breivik and his court case against his solitary confinement…

Sharon Shalev : I think Breivik is a very specific and complicated case. And I must say, I don’t know, they do have a problem. I think the court was right when it said that the fact that he has three cells at his disposition does not change the fact that he is in solitary confinement.  He is in solitary confinement. But I must say I feel sorry for the Norvegian prison service, who I think have real concerns. I think they felt obliged to give him some ‘meaningful human interaction’. To their credit, I must say that they really tried hard to find a solution. From their perspective, if they let him mix with other prisoners, he’s in danger, there’s no doubt about that, because he didn’t just murder people, he murdered children. There is a real danger for him. And on the other hand, it’s clear that he will try to radicalize people, he’s very vocal with his crazy ideas, and he absolutely will try to attract vulnerable people. He has a fan-site. The authorities tried to get people from the outside into prison to talk with him by paying them. He’s a very unpleasant individual, still I don’t want to call him a monster.

guantanamo-bay prison cellLV: Do you think the existence of Guantanamo (photo :prison cell in Guantanamo) provoked a backlash in the culture on how we think about incarceration, solitary confinement, torture and so on.

Sharon Shalev: It may sound weird and bizarre, but, if anything, I think Guantanamo provoked a positive shift. It brought things into the public. When I’m talking about Supermax and solitary confinement now, people know what I’m talking about and I think Guantanamo played a big role in that. It’s an easier link for people to make, they will say Supermax is like Guantanamo, they understand, so from that perspective it did a lot of good. But maybe I’m talking now only about people like myself. The combination of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib did some good, that came out of these horrible places. The public now at least knows what this is about. People know it’s not right.

LV: In your book you expressed some hope that Obama would close down Guantanamo…

Sharon Shalev: Obama was confronted with the limits of the system and with the fact that countries didn’t want to take Guantanamo prisoners. Obama did a few positive things against solitary confinement, he did it a bit late, but he did it. He ordered some changes in the federal system limiting the isolation of young people, of mentally ill people. I would like to see it for everyone, but it was a start. Now only a fool can predict what Trump will do. I can only say I’m very worried, especially about what’s going to happen inside America’s criminal justice system.

LV: An important element in the practice of solitary confinement is the bureaucratization and the classification of prisoners following their dangerousness…

Sharon Shalev: I think when you classify people, it’s like classifying butterflies. Classification offers respectability. It makes it sound scientific to put people in boxes. If you start making boxes you can start to put anyone inside any box you want. That’s not difficult.

LV: Can you tell me something about your evaluation of the role of the trade-unions and the guards in the whole process…

Sharon Shalev: I know the question of the trade-unions is a big issue in Belgium as well. I am a massive, massive fan of trade unions, they are playing a very important role, but what happened in Belgium during the prison guard strike in 2016 is too much. That is making negative use of their power. In the question of Supermax prisons they say “if we treat prisoners well than our staff will be in danger”. But this is not true. It’s not correct. I think that by treating prisoners badly, by putting them in isolation, you are endangering your staff, you don’t make things safer. Trade unions ask for good conditions for their members, but by acting this way they are making them more vulnerable. Increasing physical security doesn’t make them more secure. That’s destructive behavior.

Architects design for supermax prisonLV: What about the architects, the ones who are making the hardware for solitary confinement…

Sharon Shalev: I have a lot of issues with them like I say in the book. Not only  do they what their design brief asks them to do, but they do it without asking any questions, and I think that they should ask these questions. I think it’s unacceptable the way that architects behave. The architects create the physical space where all of this solitary confinement takes place.  They design the cells with no windows, with toilets in the front of the cell, a table that is just next to the toilet… all these things are carried out by the architect.

LV: With the practice of solitary confinement like in the US, did we reach the limit? The furthest stage of what punishment can be?

Sharon Shalev: It’s never the end. There is always much worse. I don’t want to give anyone any ideas here, but to give you an example, in the old prisons some 20O years ago, the size of the cell, was a bit like the size of this table, you couldn’t even spread your arms in it. So, cells can always be smaller. It’s always possible to make things worse and worse. But yes, we are close to the limit.  You heard certainly about some prisoners in the United States who said they would prefer dying to being in solitary confinement, and I can understand that because it goes on and on, and someone can feel that it’s better to just put an end to it. Many people try to kill themselves in solitary confinement. Some succeed.

LV: They say solitary confinement is only for a limited part of the prison population. Do you think on the contrary that it influenced the whole concept of punishment and incarceration?

Pelican Bay prisoner-hunger-strike-supportersSharon Shalev: I do think it made it worse, because it provided this option of isolation. And it had no positive effect in the prison system. The numbers…80,000 or 100,000 people in isolation in the US alone…. At the same time, I try to look at it in an optimistic way, saying that these extreme forms made people realize what’s going on in prisons and reject it. I’m not optimistic, but I see a positive impact. There is also more solidarity now than at the time when I wrote my book in the early 2000s. There were the hunger strikes at Pelican Bay and all over the States. So clearly there is solidarity now. And that is a positive effect of Supermax. It can bring people together, the opposite of what authorities were trying to do. It hits them back in the face, actually.





Prison activist and editor. Luk Vervaet is the author of « Le making-of d'Anders B. Breivik » (Egalité=Editions, 2012), « Nizar Trabelsi : Guantanamo chez nous ? (Editions Antidote, 2014), " De grote stap achterwaarts, teksten over straf en gevangenis" (Antidote & PTTL, 2016). He is co-author of « Kim et Ken, mes enfants disparus » (Editions Luc Pire, 2006), « Condamnés à la prison? Ecrits sur un monde caché » (Revue Contradictions, 2008) et « L'affaire Luk Vervaet : écrits sur un interdit professionnel » (Revue Contradictions, 2011).

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