More MIM articles on Control Units and Mental Health

U.S. Prisons Prove Maddening

Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison
Lorna A. Rhodes
Reviewed by CL (a California prisoner) and a MIM comrade

This book is about Control Units in Washington state prisons. Rhodes conducted a 3 year study of Washington prisons and used her experience and interviews to write this book. She provides some good information about the failure of the control units and problems with the prison system in general, but overall takes too kind a view of the system and fails to question its underlying problems.

Lorna A Rhodes' "Total Confinement" is an attempt to illuminate the internal contradictions within the various control units, the prisons within the prisons, that exist throughout the united states. Over a several year period of time, the author of Total Confinement documented numerous conversations she had and observed with prisoners, some conveniently labeled "mentally ill" and others "just rebellious," as well as conversations she had with "mental health workers, counselors (who she correctly points out work in the interests of the state - not prisoners), and correctional officers, and many conversations and interactions which took place between the opposing camps themselves.

Although she correctly attacks individualism at points in the book: "...the contradictions of a Euro-American individualism that is widely shared and deeply implicated in the historical origins of both prisons and psychiatry."(p11), Rhodes ultimately further perpetuates the oppression of prisoners by reflecting and engaging in the pseudo-scientific method of psychology that is used to justify the inherently oppressive nature of the state and separate prisoners into a multitude of categories based on supposed innate behavior traits, rather than address the social and material basis in which the prison system and human behavior finds its roots.

Rhodes does provide some good material exposing the inhuman conditions in prison control units. "Written accounts by prisoners describe 'shit throwing' as an effective weapon developed by those deprived of everything but their own bodies."(p44) Prisoners in control units serve the full sentence there until being released to their communities. "This raises troubling questions about what purpose such control really serves."(p59) In addition, prisoners with mental health problems are sent to control units. She notes that "Disturbed mental states are addressed by imposing conditions that further disturb the mind."(p60)

She also correctly notes that it is prison that causes mental illness for many prisoners: "From this perspective it hardly matters what the diagnosis is or whether the inmate is or is not 'truly' mentally ill. Being in prison itself is bound to cause harm through either neglect or attention, the degeneration of inmates evoking a contrast with better days - national and institutional as well as personal - in the past."(p119)

The question that is being continuously raised throughout the book is whether or not the prison system can and is designed to "rehabilitate" or is its function primarily of a "punitive" nature. This questioning in itself is misleading. What the author and others who are included in this book fail to recognize and address is that the state is a tool for social control that functions in the interest of the bourgeoisie and its lesser beneficiaries (petit-boureoisie and labor aristocracy), and as long as we live in a society consisting of social classes and social inequalities, the prison system will continue to exist regardless of any so-called "rehabilitative" programs and efforts that may or may not exist within the prison system. The question that should be raised is how can we work best to win over the masses of oppressed nationalities to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in order to eliminate the class interests and social inequalities, i.e. capitalism-imperialism, that give rise to a prison system to begin with.

At times the author, and even some of the correctional officers and prisoners themselves, go so far as to suggest that prisoners and correctional officers can co-exist together in harmony. "...while some prison workers are harsh or worse, presuming that all are harsh not only misrepresents the many that are not, but also keeps us from a more nuanced understanding of the work they are being asked to do."(p6) The author and those who share these views fail to understand the dialectical relationship that exists between the prison population on one hand and the correctional officers and administration on the other. So long as the prison system exists, i.e. class society, the contradiction between the prisoners and prison administration is inseparable, and despite relative periods of calm, the inherently oppressive nature of the state will inevitably breed various forms of resistance and explode in periodic eruptions.

There are points in this book where not only the author, but some prisoners themselves, fall into the self-deceiving trap of separating the pigs into different categories between those who are "fair" and "straight" as opposed to those who are not. This subjective categorization based on "personal characteristics" blurs our vision and prevents us from making a correct and accurate objective analysis that all CO's and administrators, regardless of how fair and straight they may be in appearance, are in essence members of the labor aristocracy - a social class of over paid workers who's material and political interests are not only irreconcilable with prisoners', but who's privileged lifestyle and high wages are only possible as a result of the exploitation of oppressed nationals, the very exploitation and oppression that results in the social inequalities where the conditions for "crime" are created and develop in the first place.

It is of significance for anyone who reads this book, especially prisoners and other oppressed nationalities, to understand two important points. 1) This contradiction between prisoners and the prison system is an irreconcilable one that can only be resolved by eliminating the prison system itself, that is, by creating a classless society where the conditions for "crime" to develop no longer exist, including those crimes committed by those responsible for creating these conditions (oppression, poverty, etc) in the first place. To suggest that these two opposing class interests, specifically in regards to the internal contradictions within the prison system, can co-exist peacefully in harmony, is to become and accomplice and collaborator of the state by promoting nothing less than a complete submission to an inherently oppressive social system. 2) the psychological approach that is taken throughout this book (and the prison system) falsely contends that human behavior develops in isolation and separate from social and material influences. This is incorrect and implies that human behavior is innate, thus excluding the social and material basis in which it develops from and ensuring the preservation of the status-quo and the oppressive social relations that are inherent within it.

MIM has been building public opinion to shut down isolation units for years and we have recently begun to unite a nationwide movement with our statement against all such units, which can be found online at We encourage those who are concerned about the well-being of the mentally ill in prisons to join us in this campaign.