CRIME & Punishment
Social scientist Craig Haney exposes the psychologically devastating conditions inside our nation's 'supermax' prisons
By Jennifer McNulty
(Photo: R. R. Jones)
Craig Haney remembers the first time he saw William Wagner. It was during a tour of Pelican Bay, California's state-of-the-art high-security prison on the desolate north coast.
"I remember him because he was so dramatically psychotic," recalls Haney, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz who was gathering evidence for a lawsuit on conditions of solitary confinement inside Pelican Bay. "He was lying in the fetal position, disturbed and incoherent."
A longtime heroin addict whose criminal history consisted of drug-related theft, Wagner deteriorated in Pelican Bay. Along with nearly half the prison's population, he was held in solitary confinement, or so-called "supermax" conditions. "He was transferred to solitary for fighting, and after that he just unraveled and became catatonic," says Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of incarceration. Despite his obvious suffering, Wagner was never hospitalized or given proper treatment while he was incarcerated.
The next time Haney encountered Wagner, it was too late. Just five months after he was released from Pelican Bay, Wagner was facing capital murder charges for a slaying committed during a robbery in Sacramento. "Here was a man who had previously committed only nonviolent offenses stemming from his drug addiction, and within a few months on the streets, he was accused of committing capital murder," says Haney, whose testimony contributed to a judge's landmark ruling that conditions at Pelican Bay "may press the bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate."
We may never know for sure if the despair Wagner experienced while incarcerated contributed to the slaying, but the warehousing of unprecedented numbers of people has dramatically increased prison overcrowding and brutality while exhausting prison resources for medical and mental health services. Haney, whose research has documented the long-term psychological damage inmates are experiencing, warns that surging prison populations and deteriorating conditions are a dangerous combination.
"Even if you no longer care much about the well-being of prisoners while they are incarcerated, you need to remember that most of them are going to get out one day," says Haney. "It should matter to all of us what state of mind they are in when they are released."
In some ways, Haney's job is to find the humanity where often there appears to be none. Inmates sentenced to death for heinous crimes do not evoke much public sympathy, and the plethora of maximum-security prisons today reflects society's appetite for vengeance. Yet Haney has spent his entire career probing the psychology of violent criminals and acting on his belief that an important measure of the quality of social justice that exists in a society can be found in the way it treats its least-favored citizens. In the process, he has stripped bare the devastating psychological effects of imprisonment, emerging as one of the nation's leading researchers in the areas of capital punishment and penal institutions.
With degrees in both law and psychology, Haney has amassed an impressive record of important research results in both fields. He was the first researcher to establish the biasing effects of a process known as "death qualification"--the practice of asking prospective jurors to express support for the death penalty before allowing them to participate in capital cases. That research, which showed how the selection process itself predisposes potential jurors to inflict the death penalty, has had a lasting effect on judges and attorneys. Haney and his students have continued to publish studies of jury decision making in capital cases and to discover and document the psychologically damaging conditions of imprisonment. Last year, Haney's expert testimony proved pivotal in a lawsuit in which a federal judge declared supermax conditions in Texas prisons unconstitutional. And he has researched the backgrounds of more than 100 individuals on death row in an attempt to unlock one of society's darkest secrets: what drives people to commit unthinkable crimes.
Haney, who has interviewed thousands of maximum-security prisoners, including many convicted murderers, acknowledges the horrible nature of the crimes and the tragic consequences for victims. "I'm not wired any differently than anybody else," he says. "Particularly if there were children involved, I ask myself 'How could somebody do that?'" But Haney has always been able to see the humanity inside even the most dangerous criminals, and he is struck by the consistencies of what he hears about their childhoods.
"By trying to find the origins of violence, I consider myself a friend of victims," says Haney. "I want to understand the origins of violence so that someday we can live in a society where there's less of it."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Haney is committed to taking his academic results into real-world legal arenas. "One of the reasons the criminal justice system is so hard to change is that a great deal of the knowledge generated by academics has never penetrated it," he says. "The legal system rarely comes looking for new ways to think about a problem, so you have to be prepared to carry the message to whoever in decision-making positions will listen."
Although there is no work he would rather do, Haney almost missed his calling. In 1970, during his first year of graduate school in psychology at Stanford University, Haney was becoming frustrated by an education that felt "too many steps removed" from society's problems.
On a hunch, his adviser, Philip Zimbardo, whose breakthrough Stanford Prison Experiment would soon rock the world of psychology, suggested that Haney explore the complaints of a New Jersey mother who felt her son had been wrongfully convicted and was now on death row.
"I was going back to New Jersey for spring break to see my family anyway, so I looked into it," recalls Haney. "It was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the picture turns from black and white to color. In that one case, I saw 100 different ways that psychology related to the legal system, and nobody seemed to be making the connections. I was invigorated, and it totally reoriented my career." The woman's son was spared by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1972 to set aside the death sentences of everyone on death row, and Haney went on to earn a law degree as well as his doctorate in psychology from Stanford.
But times have changed since Haney's days in graduate school, when he and Zimbardo were understandably optimistic that their work on the Stanford Prison Experiment would help speed reforms of U.S. prison policy. The experiment in 1971 attracted international media attention for the new light it shed on the powerful psychological effects of institutional settings. In the experiment, a group of psychologically healthy college students were randomly assigned roles as "prisoners" and "guards" in a prisonlike setting. But the planned two-week experiment was aborted after only six days, when student "prisoners" began suffering acute psychological trauma and the "guards" began mistreating their "wards."
The experiment's results dramatically demonstrated the ways in which social situations can overwhelm personality traits in determining behavior, and the findings appeared to have profound implications for correctional policies. On the 25th anniversary of the experiment, however, Haney and Zimbardo wrote for American Psychologist of "the death of rehabilitation" that took place instead. Rehabilitation, based on the idea that incarceration would facilitate an individual's productive re-entry into the free world, was publicly and politically discredited in the 1970s and replaced by a "rage to punish," they wrote.
Fueled by political propaganda and media-induced fears of crime, the number of people incarcerated in the United States skyrocketed from 200,000 to 1.7 million between 1970 and 1997, earning the U.S. the distinction of locking up a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on earth--and a wildly disproportionate number of racial minorities.
"For the first time in the 200-year history of imprisonment in the United States, there appear to be no limits on the amount of prison pain the public is willing to inflict in the name of crime control," wrote Haney and Zimbardo.
As one of a handful of psychologists who systematically assess the harmful effects of incarceration under adverse conditions, Haney has spent a lot of time in Texas. Conditions there are so bad that the prison system has been under federal scrutiny for 20 years.
"There is a swagger in the Texas prison system that doesn't exist anyplace else," says Haney, who inspected several of the state's supermax units and interviewed more than 100 inmates and prison guards there for a recent court hearing. In his testimony, Haney described witnessing a level of despair among inmates that was "unparalleled" in his experience. He testified about observing inmates who had smeared themselves with feces, and others who were incoherent, babbling, shrieking, banging their hands on the walls, or begging for help.
Supermax facilities were designed to hold the nation's most notorious violent criminals, but prison administrators have also grown fond of using them as holding pens for gang members and those who suffer from pre-existing psychiatric conditions or, like heroin addict William Wagner, untreated drug problems that contribute to erratic and sometimes violent behavior in prison. Inmates in supermax units typically spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Their meals arrive through a slot in the solid-steel cell door, and they rarely, if ever, interact with or touch another human being. They often stay there for years on end.
Haney's research has established the precise ways in which the majority of supermax inmates suffer lasting psychological trauma as a result of being confined in this increasingly popular form of incarceration.
In his Texas decision, Federal District Court Judge William Wayne Justice relied heavily on Haney's testimony when he ruled that the extreme levels of psychological deprivation imposed in Texas supermax facilities were cruel and unusual. He noted that the "most compelling testimony" on the prison conditions came from Haney, whom he referred to as "perhaps the nation's leading expert in the area of penal institution psychology."
"That case was important because it brought constitutional principles to bear on this potentially very harmful form of imprisonment," Haney says of the Texas ruling. "If the court had decided differently, it would've had a huge impact on the overall deterioration of conditions there and elsewhere."
In California, Haney was part of a landmark federal lawsuit, Madrid v. Gomez, that examined conditions of confinement at Pelican Bay. The California Department of Corrections was ultimately ordered to change a number of practices, including the use of excessive force by staff and a critical shortage of medical and mental health care.
Haney also testified as an expert witness in Coleman v. Vasquez, a sweeping federal case in which the quality of mental health care in the entire California prison system was at issue. A statewide study had found thousands of California prisoners suffering from undetected and untreated major mental illnesses and that many mentally ill prisoners in the California prison system were being placed in disciplinary segregation rather than being provided adequate mental health care. Haney presented the results of his own more detailed follow-up study. In a separate opinion with even more widespread implications than Madrid, the judge in the Coleman case ordered the state to make substantial improvements in the quality of its prison mental health care and in the psychiatric screening of prisoners.
Haney's legal work gives him unprecedented access to the people and places that are the subjects of his academic research. He evaluates each case at the outset to determine whether psychological issues are at the fore. If so, he may volunteer his services, be appointed by the court, or join one of the legal teams as a paid consultant. He protects the integrity of his research by insisting on doing legally and scientifically defensible studies. In prison cases, for example, he interviews representative groups of randomly selected inmates, not just the handful of individuals that attorneys have selected.
"Attorneys don't influence me or shape the data I collect. I tell them, 'Look, I'm not going to just walk around and give you my impressions.' The expert opinions that have the most influence on judges are based on competent studies," says Haney. "The prison system now touches so many people's lives in this country, and we're spending so much money on it, yet there is almost no accurate or honest commentary on what's going on inside."
As he has learned over the years, change takes time. Although Washington State's prison system is now among the better ones in the country, that was not the case in 1979 when Haney, fresh out of law school, took on his first prison litigation case. The U.S. Justice Depart- ment was suing the state of Washington's Department of Corrections, and when the court ruled in favor of the inmates and ordered improvements in the system, Haney was elated.
"I thought that within a year, the system would be totally and completely fixed," recalls Haney, who had been hired by the Justice Department. Instead, the court decision was just the beginning of a decade of "pushing and shoving" to translate the judge's decision into tangible changes. "It was incredibly frustrating, and it was very difficult because I had to go back and face the prisoners who had provided me with a lot of information for the case," says Haney, adding that inmates who participate in lawsuits over prison conditions may be singled out for retaliation that takes much subtler--though perhaps no less devastating--forms than beatings.
Court-appointed monitors are typically assigned to follow up on a judge's orders, some of which, such as improved access to work programs, can be implemented within months. But money is always an issue, and judges frequently have to order state legislatures to fund improvements. Attitudes are often the last to change. "Guards at places like Pelican Bay can come to believe that they are giving prisoners what they deserve," says Haney. "And they stop thinking about them as human beings. Once that happens, mistreatment is almost inevitable."
On a case-by-case basis, Haney feels that he and his colleagues have made a difference. "But you have to realize that the courtroom victory is the beginning of making change, not the end of it," says Haney.
For Haney, fielding a call from National Public Radio's All Things Considered on Christmas Day is all part of being a leading expert on capital punishment. In capital cases, where the zeal to punish reaches its apex, Haney knows he is fighting an uphill battle against public opinion and trends in the courtroom.
Haney's research has also focused on the psychological backgrounds of people accused or convicted of capital crimes, for which the death penalty may be imposed. His profiles of defendants are typically presented during the sentencing phase of a trial. Such documents are often all that stands between a capital defendant and a death sentence.
"The law and the constitution require us to consider the background and character of the defendant," says Haney, explaining that those elusive factors, known as mitigation, provide the legal grounds for consideration of a life sentence without parole rather than death.
The process of gathering the facts of a life gets to the core of psychology, says Haney, who has made major contributions to the understanding of how adult criminal behavior is rooted in early childhood experience. "Capital cases are fascinating because you don't just interview the client," he explains. "It's the client, the client's family, teachers--anyone you can find. You piece together these different parts of the defendant's life to gain insight into the course it has taken."
Mitigation provides the defense team with its first and only opportunity to present what it knows about a defendant's background that might convince the court to show mercy. "Remember, sentencing hearings are not about getting people released," reiterates Haney. "We're looking for the factors of an individual's life story that help explain who he is and what he did, thereby lessening the need to punish him with death."
Haney felt acutely the weight of his responsibility in the case of Robert Alton Harris, who in 1992 became the first person executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated by the courts in 1978. Harris had been sentenced to death for the 1978 murders of two 16-year-old San Diego boys, and Haney was called on late in the appeal to compile Harris's social profile for the defense. Haney documented a life of unrelenting abuse that began with Harris's birth three months prematurely after his father kicked his pregnant mother in the stomach during a drunken rage. Harris suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, years of beatings, and cognitive disabilities.
"A lot of people point to someone like Robert Harris and say, 'So what? Plenty of people have had it tough and gone on to lead productive, law-abiding lives,'" says Haney. "But people rarely know the real facts and details of these people's lives. They are not encouraged to look past what they believe are evil forces who need to be exterminated and see the human beings who are the product of extreme poverty and brutality and a whole range of truly terrible circumstances."
After Harris was put to death--an execution Haney reluctantly witnessed at Harris's request--it would have been easy to walk away feeling hopeless. But Haney, who remains troubled by the "Kafkaesque" atmosphere that unfolded around the execution, says it made him more determined than ever to educate people about the facts that underlie capital cases.
As scarred as Harris's own background was, Haney says that degree of childhood abuse and trauma is commonplace among people who have committed egregious crimes. And therein lies the real key to crime prevention, says Haney: Rather than calling for ever more sophisticated prison fortresses that numb us to the humanity of those inside, prison officials must tend to the individual needs of inmates and prepare them for eventual release. And society needs to address the real causes of criminal behavior, embracing its youngest members early on to ensure that all children receive the emotional and material support that will help keep them safely beyond the reach of prison walls.