Control Unit Prisons

In the 1840’s, Charles Dickens toured the Eastern State Penitentiary (an isolation prison) and remarked: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any physical torture of the body.”

Control units are supermax prisons designed to control the thinking of prisoners through carefully contrived sensory deprivation tactics and focusing of the prisoners’ attention on immediate concerns. It is precisely these strategies that disable prisoners via a psychological, physical, and spiritual breakdown as the means by which to compel mindless compliance. These exercises in demoralization expose prison officials as master manipulators of inmates’ lives; with this control over housing assignments, medical care, food, property, mail, recreation, and other conditions, each prisoner is relegated to government imposed inferiority in order for authority’s goal to be met: the crushing of the human spirit and hope.

The concept of employing isolation and sensory deprivation as methods to control prisoners originated in the 1820’s with the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, with the construction of the “Pennsylvania Model” prison (the prevailing belief centered on solitary confinement inducing remorse and rehabilitation). However, it soon became evident, use of these conditions compelled mental collapse and insanity. The 1830’s found Charles Darwin visiting an isolation unit, observations prompted him to explain: “the prisoners seemed dead to everything but the torturing anxiety and horrible despair.” Upon the heels of these devastating portraits of solitary confinement flowed literature in Germany, between 1854-1909, which concluded that isolation resulted in hallucinations (visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory), disassociation, hysteria, agitation, motor excitement, aimless violence, persecutory delusions, self-harm, and psychosis (J. Ganser, Arch Psychiatr Nervenkr 1898). These condemnations culminated in an 1890 U.S. Supreme Court decision; sensory deprivation and solitary confinement caused violent insanity, the Court denounced the practice and in 1913 confinement in isolation was officially abolished.

Tragically, in 1962, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edgar Schein, suggested physical, psychological, and chemical techniques could be utilized against prisoners to alter behavior and attitude. Schein was an internationally known expert on psychological coercion, having conducted extensive studies on the torture and brainwashing techniques used on American prisoners during the Korean War. Schein proposed the isolation and sensory deprivation of prisoners to destroy socialization and to sever links with the outside world − because humans validate their existence and personality through contact with others the imposition of solitary confinement visits detrimental impact upon the human psyche. Schein’s unconscionable form of psychological disorientation was called the “Muttnik Principle” by psychologist Nathaniel Braden, it also came to be known as the “Psychology of Invisibility” (the purposeful removal of others to curb self-validation).

Others built on Schein’s atrocities by suggesting the use of powerful psychotropic medications to mentally isolate and physically control prisoners. University of Michigan psychologist James V. McConnell followed up on this suggestion with an article entitled Criminals can be Brainwashed (Psychology Today, April 1970), which was followed by Havard psychologist B.F. Skinner’s 1971 book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he discussed manipulating the mind like clay.

These ungodly developments soon received support from former U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Bennett’s determination that the prison system served as an ideal locale for human experimentation on brainwashing. Consequently, federal prison psychologist Martin Groder transferred prisoners to solitary confinement; if compliance ensued then privileges were granted, otherwise, the psychological torture continued. Prison authorities aimed at sensory feedback reduction to create predictable cracks in prisoner’s mental defense mechanisms, fissures they filled with government propaganda. Jessica Mitford, in The Torture Cure: In Some American Prisons it is already 1984 (Harper’s, August 1973), detailed results of a laboratory experiment designed to test the effects of sensory deprivation on the mind:

Sensory deprivation, as a behavior modifier, was the subject of an experiment in which students were paid twenty dollars to live in tiny solitary cubicles with nothing to do. The experiment was to last at least six weeks, but none of the students could last for more than a few days. Many experienced vivid hallucinations . . . [and] the students were fed propaganda messages. No matter how poorly the messages were presented, or how illogical the messages sounded, the propaganda had a marked effect on the attitudes of all students − an effect that lasted for at least one year after they came out of the experiment.

The initial federal lockdown unit was Marion, Ill., an experimental project for developing programs to mentally break prisoners; by 1983 prisoners averaged 22 ½ hrs. daily in their cells. The early 1980’s also witnessed various states erecting control units; by 1996 there existed more than forty control units housing some 15,000 prisoners, an abomination into which the feds rejoined when opening Administrative Maximum in Florence, Colorado, in 1994 (prisoners received three hours of recreation three times a week).

Biderman’s Chart on Penal Coercion (reprinted in 1983 by Amnesty International’s Report on Torture) divided the systematic torture tactics into eight sections (each section possessing two subsections, one labelled “Purpose” and the other identifying “Variants”). The remainder of this article will concentrate on Biderman’s blueprint.

1. Isolation

Purpose: Deprivation of support from other prisoners and the outside world to both obstruct the ability to resist and compel absolute dependence on captors.

Variants: Use of solitary confinement through isolation, partial isolation, or group isolation.

2. Monopolization of Perception

Purpose: Fixation of attention on immediate predicaments and the elimination of stimuli competing with captor propaganda.

Variants: Isolation, lights on in cells 24 hrs. a day, restricted movement, bland food in limited amounts, and furtherance of sensory deprivation via windowless cells.

3. Induced Exhaustion & Debility

Purpose: Weakening the physical and mental ability to resist.

Variants: Reduced caloric intake, exploitation of pre-existing injuries, sleep deprivation, exposure to climate extremes (e.g., no coat, gloves, or head cover in freezing conditions), and intentionally inadequate health care.

4. Threats

Purpose: Cultivating anxiety and despair.

Variants: Verbal threats, occasional physical assault by guards, rewards for compliance, disclosure of confidential information to trigger abusive attacks by other inmates, use of random searches, and urine analysis testing.

5. Occasional Indulgence

Purpose: Motivation of compliance, deterring adjustment to set conditions.

Variants: Doing favors, constant fluctuation of attitudes (e.g., cessation of cell searches, making small talk, extra recreation) to make knowing what to expect impossible.

6. Demonstration of Omnipotence

Purpose: To evidence the futility of resistance.

Variants: Officer confrontations toward inmates, failure to follow written policies, trumped up disciplinary charges, and indefinite assignment to supermax (the snitch, parole, or die, one’s sole opportunity for control unit departure).

7. Degradation

Purpose: Guards showing prisoners the cost of resistance is far more damaging than capitulation to one’s self-esteem, reduction of inmates to animal level concerns.

Variants: Impositions on personal hygiene, a filthy environment, demeaning punishments, lack of privacy (even when using toilet), and taken out-of-cell only when restrained and under guard escort.

8. Enforcement of Trivial Demands

Purpose: Development of compliance habits.

Variants: Strict adherence to petty rules, seizure of authorized property, destruction of items during searches, and fabricated disciplinary reports.

Today’s foremost expert on the results of solitary confinement, Harvard Medical School faculty member Dr. Stuart Grassian, authored an article in 1983, Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement, wherein he described barbarous consequences from prison sensory deprivation conditions. In general, Dr. Grassian pointed to restlessness, banging on walls and yelling (as seen with caged animals), incoherent states of confusion, assaultiveness, hallucinations, disassociation, and withdrawn hypnoid states. Some data resulted from his study of prisoners in a control unit for an average of only two months; imagine 10, 20, 30 years – it’s happening! Dr. Grassian observed cutting, other methods of self-mutilation, hypersensitivity to external stimuli (lights causing discomfort, noise inflicting irritation), perceptual distortions, derealization, partial amnesia, degradation of memory and concentration, paranoia, and fantasies of aggressive revenge (torture/mutilation of guards) – Dr. Grassian found that 80% of prisoners in solitary confinement suffered massive increases in pre-existing mental illnesses and developed symptoms associated with reduced environmental stimuli, a psychiatric condition characterized by above cited symptoms.

The American Journal of Psychiatry confirmed Dr. Grassian’s conclusions and the current article’s author (having been in supermax for over thirty years) experiences, in addition to the pathologies supra, headaches, poor impulse control, depression, anti-social attitudes, and personality changes. Undoubtedly, control unit prisons cause severe mental breakdown, and do so with the full knowledge of government; rather than corrective action, government enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act to specifically exclude lawsuits by prisoners for mental damage absent physical injury. Our government, your congressman, has consciously sanctioned both psychological torture and its resulting devastation on our sons, daughters, and neighbors in control unit prisons.


Mr. Atwood is a victim of child rape, was arrested in 1984, ended up on death row, and since then has resided in supermax prisons. He earned a three year theology degree from an Orthodox Christian seminary, a bachelors (as a pre-law English major), and a masters in literature. Frank has also written several books on Eastern Christian theology. Please visit Two books are due out in 2017 about Mr. Atwood’s life: Freebird Publishers and Macheras monastery (in Cyprus) publisher.