After an alleged fight between two inmates in one of the ten housing units at United States Penitentiary, Tucson, a week-long institution-wide lockdown was issued on May 25, 2021.
At first, prisoners were not told why the lockdown was imposed, whether it was a punitive or an administrative lockdown, and for how long it would last.
In my experience, there is little transparency about this. The nature of the lockdown became obvious to me when the first meal was served. As soon as I saw that it was a boxed meal, usually bologna or peanut butter sandwiches, it became clear that the nature of the lockdown was punitive. At this point, I was still unaware of what had happened and why we were locked down. The next day, the warden of the complex issued an inmate bulletin that explained the incident and why we were locked in our cells 24 hours a day.
USP Tucson houses about 1,400 inmates. All of us were now being punished for something that almost none of the inmates had witnessed. A number of questions sprang to my mind: why was I being punished? Why were 1,400 inmates being locked down for seven days for the wrongdoing of two people? What is the correctional objective of such collective punishment? Is there a legitimate penal justification for doing so?
This lockdown in my view plainly falls outside the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the so-called Nelson Mandela Rules, which were revised in 2015. Rule 43 states that the following practices “shall be prohibited:: (a) Indefinite solitary confinement; (b) Prolonged solitary confinement; (c) Placement of a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell; (d) Corporal punishment or the reduction of a prisoner’s diet or drinking water; or (e) Collective punishment.”
To me, collective punishment is prohibited under these rules. Such correctional actions do little more than fuel the cycle of aggression and in my view do not lead to rehabilitation.
If rehabilitation is the true goal of incarceration, the United States should put an end to all forms of collective punishment going forward.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.