The US "supermax" prison system, which is built on the twin pillars of prolonged solitary confinement and extreme conditions, was put on trial this week by the inmates of one of the country's toughest jails, the Ohio state penitentiary at Youngstown.
Prisoners who have spent years in isolation at the jail watched through the food slots cut knee-high in the steel cell doors as their lawyers listed the complaints against the prison conditions.
They described a regime more draconian than anything found anywhere else in the industrialized democracies, one that has been cited as violating international agreements on torture.
The prisoners spend 23 hours a day in small, sealed metal cells, described by one as living tombs. The 60 minutes of exercise allotted to each prisoner is also spent alone in a bare room. There is no outdoor yard.
The cell lights are never turned off, and prisoners who try to cover them to shield their eyes are penalized, setting back their chances of ever returning to a normal jail.
Prisoners leaving the cell block wear a set of rigid metal handcuffs, known as a black box, which allows no movement of the wrists. They are strip-searched on their way out and on their way back.
Brian Eskridge, imprisoned since 1990 for aggravated robbery, told the court: "It's wild in there. You've got so many people isolated in there with no way of talking with anybody. You have a sense of anxiety and a sense of panic attack. You get isolated so much, the frustration just builds up inside you."
In the last 20 years of the 20th century, the US built more than 50 super-maximum security prisons, designed as an intentionally merciless environment for the "worst of the worst": serious felons considered too violent for ordinary prisons.
The get-tough solution was politically enormously popular at the time, when fear of crime was at its height. Some states, spurred by generous federal funding, built themselves two supermaxes.
"Buried in the crime bills of each new administration are subsidies for isolation units," said Bonnie Kerness, a prison reform campaigner for a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee. "It's a moneymaker for the states."
The prison authorities defend the cells on the grounds that they make ordinary prisons safer for their inmates and create a secure working environment for the warders. They have the generally enthusiastic backing of the guards' unions.
"I feel very strongly that we are achieving our mission," the Ohio warden [governor], Todd Ishee, told this week's trial. "First is always security. We've had no escapes and no serious assaults."
But in the rush to lock up America's most wanted, far more supermax cells were built than needed for true psychopaths - Ohio has 450 - and they have become a dumping ground for convicts unwanted by the country's overcrowded jails: those from minority populations, the maladjusted and the mentally ill.
"They say they put purported gang members in there, but who's a gang member becomes a whole political discussion. In some states it's Asians, in others it's native Americans," Ms Kerness said.
"We also found a lot of mentally ill in these prisons. They don't know what to do with them so the response is to put them in isolation."
Some who are relatively stable when they arrive lose their grip on reality in the constant solitary confinement. At the Ohio state penitentiary, (OSP), psychotherapy is available, but the patients are shackled to a pole during the sessions.
After the opening arguments were heard in one of the cell blocks, the trial moved to a courtroom in nearby Akron. One by one, inmates in bright orange overalls were ushered in with shackles on their ankles and chains around their stomach, connected by a short leash to their cuffed wrists.
Keith Garner, a 44-year-old convicted murderer, told Judge James Gwin that he had been in jail since the age of 19, but his worst moment came when the OSP authorities decided to put metal strips around the steel doors of the cells, making them virtually airtight, to prevent disturbed prisoners throwing feces or urine at the guards.
"Once they sealed it up, it's like being in a tomb," Garner said, explaining that it cut off the possibility of yelled conversations with other inmates.
Like Hannibal Lecter
Edward Tilley, serving time for attempted murder, was consigned to a 10x10ft (three meters square) isolation cell for stabbing another inmate who, he claimed, was trying to force him to have sex. Since then he has hardly seen the sky.
"I didn't even know what time of day it was for those nine months," he said.
David Clark, sent to the supermax because of a record of escape attempts, complained about the use of the black box. "It cuts my skin and my wrist swells up. Your family has to look at you chained up like Hannibal Lecter or something. They have to look at you in pain, squirming around."
Human Rights Watch says that the conditions in supermax prisons violate the international covenant on civil and political rights and the convention against torture, both ratified by the US.
Prisoners have legally challenged the system in Wisconsin, Illinois and Virginia. Some cases focused on the constitutionality of their treatment, arguing it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The Ohio prisoners, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, say they are denied due process, because the decisions to place them in supermax and keep them there are arbitrary.
For example, most of the prisoners giving evidence were sent to the OSP for acts of violence against other prisoners. But Daryl Heard was transferred for smuggling marijuana into his cell.
Review boards are meant to assess the prisoners' behavior according to an honor points system, with a view to returning them to lower-security prisons better equipped to prepare them for eventual release into the outside world. But their recommendations are commonly overruled by the warden.
Lawyers for the warden argued that he and his officers should be given the discretion to judge when inmates had earned the right to be reclassified. But civil rights lawyers believe that other factors, political and economic, are in play.
"Obviously there's a pressure, once you build one of these places, to use the beds for prisoners from other overcrowded prisons," said Jules Lobel, from the Center for Constitutional Rights. "They have to justify it."
Rules and practices
Inmates can have four books each, two of which must be religious, and six photographs
They spend 23 hours a day in their cells, and one hour alone in an exercise room
On leaving the cell block they are strip-searched, shackled and accompanied by at least two guards
Supermax prisons hold 20,000 people, 2% of the total prison population
There are supermaxes in 42 states and the District of Columbia, and a federal supermax in Florence, Colorado
Other notorious supermaxes include:
Boscobel, Wisconsin - successfully sued by inmates for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, and forced to stop taking mentally ill prisoners.
Wallens Ridge, Virginia - found last year to be taking overspill prisoners from Connecticut.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002