Cages Are All the Rage: Doubling Down on Centuries of Failure

Joey Pedersen

The Greek gods would have been impressed with the sadism of American prison officials. I do not say this lightly, and neither should you accept the claim at face value, for the Greek deities were accomplished punishers. Ixion, after all, was chained to a wheel merely for having relations with a cloud (it’s a long story, which gives new meaning to the term “having one’s head in the clouds”), and the punishments of Sisyphus, Tantalus, Prometheus, et al. are well known. But not even the monstrous deities of the classical world could have devised a punishment as uniquely perverse as the one routinely carried out by modern prison officials. Probably the Greeks were too creative, too enterprising, and far too prideful to have stumbled upon the exquisite form of psychological torture known as Cage Your Rage. Such a punishment required the stunted minds of banal, bureaucratic near-automata who view human beings as numbers to be added or subtracted.

Art from the Cage Your Rage curriculum, developed by the American Correctional Association in the 1990s

A word—or two or 10—about Cage Your Rage will be forthcoming, of course, as the reader is probably unaware of this curious instrument of the brutes paid by the state to manage its prisoners. But first it is necessary to provide a bit of background information so the reader may better understand the circumstances in which Cage Your Rage is employed.

The various departments of corrections across the country, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, all warehouse prisoners in solitary confinement. Washington’s DOC is no exception. The number of prisoners in solitary will vary from state to state, and month to month, but almost invariably each jurisdiction will have dozens to hundreds of human beings thusly housed. (Oh the things that occur right under our noses, with our tax dollars, and at the behest of our public servants! Dickens would refer to solitary confinement as “a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” (1842))

It is not my intent to provide an exhaustive review of the history and effects of solitary confinement, but a few data are important for context. It should first be understood that the threat of solitary hangs over the head of every prisoner in the custody of WDOC. An inmate might be sent to solitary—called the “Intensive Management Unit” (IMU) by prison administrators who are ever in search of a good euphemism [1]—for any number of things: expressing a difference of opinion with a guard, fighting another inmate, or simply because a particular guard is having a bad day and doesn’t care much for the prisoner. It is also true that WDOC will house prisoners indefinitely in IMU for “administrative reasons.” I myself was taken directly from Snohomish County Jail to the IMU at Monroe Correctional Complex in March of 2012 and assigned a “program” (about which more later). I would remain there for the better part of a year, until being transferred to federal custody to face criminal charges. Upon returning to WDOC custody in 2014, I was again kept in IMU for the better part of a year before releasing into the general population. My placement was not based on an infraction of the rules, but rather the whim of prison officials.

The duration of a prisoner’s stay in IMU can vary drastically. He might remain there a week or several years. It is generally true that the majority of short-term IMU inmates have a good idea as to when they will be released into the general population, but, for reasons we shall see later, this does not hold for the majority of long-term IMU inmates.

The conditions in IMU vary slightly from prison to prison, but they share essential elements. If I were to be taken right now to the IMU here at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), this is what I could expect:

I would be stripped naked and, to get the psychological gamesmanship under way from the gate, made to bend over and spread my cheeks (contrary to B movies and the fevered imaginations of prison officials, the majority of prisoners—like the majority of human beings in general—do not carry objects in their rectums. This means of “searching” the inmate is a Soviet style tool intended to humiliate the subject).

I would then be handed a jumpsuit several sizes too large, told to get dressed, and then, to visit further psychological hardship on me, I’d be left waiting in the holding cell for anywhere from a half hour to several hours, nothing for company but the bright lights, a filthy toilet, and four urine-streaked walls. (I’ve heard it said that every place has its own charm, but after spending over half my life in prison I must respectfully disagree, unless by charm one means stench). After a time, even a germophobe like myself will use the half-roll of toilet paper sitting forlornly on the stainless steel sink as a pillow and the concrete slab for a bed to try and escape for a bit. It is usually after you’ve settled into your hobo’s nap that they come for you. A cynic might suspect that they’d been observing him over the camera, waiting for just such a moment, but of course they wouldn’t do such thing. (Really, they’ll tell you as much with a straight face. Having spent millions of dollars wiring these places for audio and video, and having perfected the dark art of monitoring personal correspondence and telephone calls, they will scoff at the notion that they have the time or inclination to do such things).

Having been placed in handcuffs, to which a leash is attached, I would be escorted to a cell by two guards, one of whose hands would grasp my arm and a shoulder (the other guard having leash duty) because one can never be too sure that a leashed, handcuffed prisoner escorted by two guards might not spontaneously break into a set of jumping jacks or begin turning cartwheels.

The 12×8 cell into which I’d be placed would be filthy. Well do I recall the dustballs, ants, and bits of food on the floor of the cell I was assigned during my last trip to IMU, and even now I can hear the Velcro-like sound made by the mattress when I pulled it from the concrete slab (evidently the previous inhabitant left streaks of juice—and one shudders to imagine what else—between the slab and the plastic Correctional Industries “mattress”). I would be issued sheets, two blankets that have seen far better days, a bar of soap, a toothbrush the size of my thumb, a small tube of chalk rather creatively referred to by prison officials as toothpaste, a miniature pen, and the false hope of a better tomorrow. Sometimes one is even given a pound of salt to rub into one’s wounds, in the form of advice from mental health professionals (Baker, M. 2019).

If one is callow enough to request books, one will be informed that “books are on Wednesdays” (heaven help the wretch who is brought to hell on a Thursday). The cell would be my home for the length of my stay in IMU. The only time I’d be afforded the opportunity to leave it is when, five days a week, I am handcuffed and taken to the “recreation” area. This is a small enclosure with, if the prisoner is lucky, a grating across the top providing a poor man’s view of the sky. (The recreation areas in IMU South at WSP don’t even have this going for them. They are essentially rooms with a small grated opening on the back wall that allows in fresh air. WDOC officials actually refer to these rooms as “outdoor” recreation areas. This denial of outdoor exercise [2] violates federal law, which in the 9th Circuit is very clear on prisoners’ rights to outdoor exercise.) There I would be given 45 minutes to walk in squares and use the telephone. Certain of these enclosures have dip and/or pull-up bars, though the “outdoor” areas in IMU South have dip bars that are a mere six inches from the ground. What jesters these people can be!

Upon leaving the recreation area, if it is one of the three “shower days” of the week, I would be escorted to a cage perhaps a third the size of my cell and given another 30 minutes to use the filthy shower in it. Aside from trips to these areas, I would never leave my cell. Yet the brutes begrudge IMU inmates even these meager outings, for it is their practice to have inmates sign up for them. This seems reasonable, except that they generally come around early in the morning, when the majority of prisoners are sleeping, and fail to announce their presence. It is one of the rare instances when they will come onto the tier and not stomp their combat boots (always prepared for pseudo-war, these fellows!), incessantly click their handcuffs, bang the railings, and otherwise act like small children in need of attention who’ve had far too much sugar with their breakfast.

There is also hunger to consider. It may be that the inmate has saved a roll or a helping of beans from lunch, and leaving the cell might mean one of the brutes will come in and take “contraband” while the inmate is “outside” (we live in cages and quotation marks in this incongruous world within worlds) or in the shower. The gamble isn’t always worth it to a poorly fed prisoner whose exercise and pacing—often the only things standing between himself and the abyss—depend on every last calorie. (The prisoner’s diet in Washington state is prepared with exiguity by the folks at Correctional Industries (Fisher et al., 2016).

It is this environment into which prisoners in WDOC custody are routinely thrown, as a matter of course and with great bureaucratic indifference. Among the deleterious effects of even a short term stay in IMU are: anxiety, lethargy, confusion, reduced cognitive functioning, inability to concentrate, hallucinations, insomnia, heart palpitations, and psychotic episodes (Grassian, 1983; Haney, 1993; Toch, 1992)

Not everyone subjected to solitary confinement experiences all of these symptoms, and certain prisoners may not experience any of them. But the vast majority of human beings confined indefinitely to an IMU cell will experience, to varying degrees, at least a few of these effects.

It is only with this in mind that the reader can fully grasp the real perversity of Cage Your Rage and similar “programs” regularly assigned to prisoners unfortunate enough to have found themselves at the mercy of men and women who believe, in 2021, that warehousing human beings in concrete boxes is a good idea.

The Program is Self-Destruction

The word “program” can mean many different things. It can be a schedule for a music or dance recital, a television show, or computer software. To Washington prison officials, virtually everything is a program [3]. It you’ve ever visited a loved one in a WDOC facility, you were participating in the visiting program. A prisoner forced to work “or else” (DOC 700.000; WAC 137-25-030, item 557) is participating in the inmate work program. Those prisoners who grab their lunch meal are taking part in the DOC’s food service program. And so on.

The term has ominous undertones for inmates in IMU. To be assigned “a program” means to be left in solitary confinement for an indefinite period of time, usually the better part of a year, at a minimum, and sometimes far longer.

As part of the “program” (hereafter we omit the quotation marks, thereby lending a temporary respectability—we are nothing if not magnanimous—to our friend the program. Fare thee well without thy clothing, program, and do not embarrass us too badly!) the inmate is assigned a series of packets that must be completed if he is to even be considered for release from IMU (DOC 320.250). These packets are usually authored by psychiatrists whose intellectual and professional integrity were held subordinate to their desire for money, and the titles of the packets reflect their inanity: Inside Out and Cage Your Rage are two examples.

Ostensibly it is for the good of the inmate and society, but this bit of sophistry is not accepted by serious individuals who have given the matter any thought at all. The truth is that these packets are used as a means of putting makeup on a pig. When one makes a living out of warehousing human beings in cages, one is always in search of a shiny veneer behind which may be veiled any number of squalid realities.

Modern American corrections, which in a nutshell is the control and manipulation of human beings in a custodial setting, is down to a science. Few, if any, of a prison’s régime have not been well planned by prison officials. They have been implemented for a reason, or several reasons. Prison bureaucrats are the last people who can credibly claim ignorance of the harmful effects of their policies and practices. Not only do they see them up-close [4], but they also have at their disposal a vast body of literature concerning virtually every facet of human captivity. For instance, it is well understood that isolation can break the will of the prisoner, rendering him willing to do things he otherwise would never consider. In their 1956 report on Communist interrogation techniques, Hinkle and Wolff wrote that isolation was “usually sufficient to make the prisoner eager to talk to his interrogator and to seek some method to escape from a situation which had become intolerable.” (Hinkle and Wolff, 1956; emphasis my own). The studies conducted in the 1950s at McGill University in Montreal produced the same findings (Brownfield, 1965; Vernon, 1965; Suedfeld, 1969).

Even a cursory review of the literature by a layperson is enough to see that solitary confinement visits great harm on individuals and that those subjected to it will often do just about anything to alleviate their suffering. Over 100 years ago the Washington Supreme Court observed that “[t]he effects of solitary confinement on the mind of a person charged with a crime may be imagined. It is a well-known psychological fact that men and women have frequently confessed to crimes which they did not commit. They have done it sometimes to escape present punishment which had become torture to them; sometimes through other motives” (State v. Miller, 1910).

Prison officials everywhere know these things, including those here in Washington. I do not mean the common brutes employed as guards, but rather the administrators responsible for writing policy and implementing practices. There is intent behind what they have created and perpetuated. Hans Christian Andersen knew as much when, after visiting a Swedish prison modelled upon an American one, he wrote “It is a well-built machine, a nightmare for the spirit” (Andersen, 1851).

Even if a vast body of literature on the subject did not exist, prison officials still would have a difficult time credibly claiming ignorance because not only do prisoners and their loved ones routinely point out the harmful effects of solitary confinement, but so too do numerous organizations, among them Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the ACLU. Indeed, the WDOC is currently partnered [5]—I push the bounds of decency with this word—with the Vera Institute specifically to evaluate ways it can reform its practices relating to solitary confinement. Thus far I have seen nothing at all to indicate that this “partnership” is anything more than a cheap PR stunt on the part of prison administrators.

Whatever the case, it is clear that these officials know precisely what they’re doing when they place prisoners in IMU and assign them programs. The best that might be said of them in this regard is that they are indifferent to the suffering visited upon these prisoners, and to the negative effects on the community when ultimately they are released back into society, as the majority of them will be.

We’re getting better all the time, really

“They tell me you’re not going to do the packets.”
“That’s right. I don’t have an anger problem.”
“Why are you in IMU?”
“Because I got into a fight.”
“Well…”
“I wasn’t angry when it happened.”
“Anger is at the root of much of our behavior, even when we aren’t conscious of it. Anger is what got you in prison.”
“The naked greed and stupidity of a 16-year-old who decided to rob a McDonald’s landed me in prison. I’m sure I don’t follow your logic.”
“Well, if you don’t do these packets you can’t leave IMU.”
“But the questions are ridiculous, and many of them are very personal.”
“Just make something up.”
“You want me to lie?”
“I want you to complete the fucking packets.”
“You seem angry. Perhaps you ought to do them for me.”

Some questions prisoners are required to answer in the Cage Your Rage curriculum are the sort of questions a person detained by law enforcement should only answer with an attorney present. Note also that a WA DOC prisoner in solitary confinement must complete enough packets to reach Max Level 3 before being allowed coffee as a commissary item. See WA DOC IMU commissary order form here.

I first encountered the Cage Your Rage packets in the late 90s. I’d been sent to the IMU at the Oregon State Penitentiary [6] for fighting, something that seems like (and unfortunately is) a good idea for a 17-year-old trying to survive in a world full of adult criminals. I recall the first time one of these packets was slid under my cell door. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Initially I thought it was one of the many useless things provided by mental health staff members to inmates in solitary. In my years of imprisonment I can’t count the number of times some dullard or other with a saccharine smile has come to my cell door, as I paced to and fro with a threadbare blanket across my shoulders, and inquired as to whether I needed anything. Do I need anything? Yeah, grab a pen, I’ve got a list of things for you. Start with fresh air and sunshine. Do I need anything!

It is usually at this point that the person will scurry off, but not before sliding a word search under the cell door (look for the fruit! How stimulating! Later, when the prisoner is contemplating slamming his head into the wall, he can instead cut the ennui with more ennui—THIS is the culmination of centuries of Western psychology: a fruit-themed word search provided to the man in despair).

But the Cage Your Rage packet was in fact intended as a core element of my stay in IMU. It seems as absurd to me today as it did then. I’ve been assigned similar series of packets on several occasions in the years since, and each time I find them just as offensive as the last. For one thing, there is something inherently risible in prison officials suggesting to anyone that he needs to improve his communication skills. And to make this suggestion to someone they’ve locked in a cage indefinitely, kept from seeing his friends and family, denied phone access to, and pilfered or delayed the correspondence of, well, such impudence would make a whore blush. These people are nothing if not good actors.

Another aspect of these packets—particularly Cage Your Rage, as implied by its title—that always offended my sensibilities is that they presuppose the prisoner has an anger problem. It is often the case that he does, which of course is attributable to a combination of biological and environmental factors. What’s strikingly clueless on the part of prison officials is that many of their policies and practices contribute to the anger problems of a high number of inmates. It is a sick game to prod and poke a human being with sticks and then hand him a “self-help” packet. This is precisely what occurs when the DOC assigns these absurdities to prisoners in solitary confinement.

We’re here to help you, seriously.

“The committee has put your release on hold.”
“But why? I finished the last packet two weeks ago.”
“Some of the things you wrote are a little disturbing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Right here, for instance. You were asked to describe what triggers your anger. You wrote ‘The ignorance and fatuity of the spiritually and morally bankrupt creeps who put me in a cage and then forced me to describe for them what is wrong with me—with me!’ They’re considering writing you up for it.”
“But I was simply answering the question.”
“You know what your problem is, Pedersen?”
“Oh, but I have several of them. One of them is leaving spittle on my cell door at the moment.”
“Your problem is you’re not as fucking smart as you think you are.”
“You seem angry again.”

Fragments of these conversations have been lost over the years, others modified a bit, but I’ve always kept their central features floating about in my mind. What is most striking about them—and there have been several over the years—is that nearly all of them took place between myself and a either a counselor or mental health staff member.

In her 2004 study of a prison here in Washington state, Lorna Rhodes writes of mental health workers that their job, in a sense, is to protect prisoners “from the prison itself” (Rhodes 2004). It is easy to understand and appreciate what she was getting at, but Rhodes misses a crucial point: namely, that prison mental health workers are in many ways complicit in the harm visited upon the prisoners. And it goes well beyond the clueless, somewhat condescending “Do you need anything?” These staff members are in fact instrumental in the distribution of Cage Your Rage and similar packets.

Recently, WDOC Director of Mental Health Karie Rainer—who has a doctorate, possibly from one of the prestigious online universities which over the course of the last 20 years have popped up like strip malls and prisons—had this to say about the decision to assign Cage Your Rage to prisoners in IMU:

Earlier in the pandemic the number of people accessing DOCART [7] reduced due to social distancing requirements. This extended the amount of time those people on the waiting list would have to wait in order to gain access to this valuable, evidence-based program. The mental health staff who work in restrictive housing at WSP did some research and suggested that they could offer ‘Cage Your Rage’ (CYR) as an alternative. While not considered evidence–based, it is a well-regarded program to address aggressive behavior for incarcerated people. CYR is briefer and therefore more people are able to complete the program in a shorter amount of time.  The decision about which program to require of people on Max Custody is made by the Max Committee, chaired by Tim Thrasher. I do not make those decisions by myself. I help to facilitate access to CYR when the committee makes the recommendation, since it is a program offered by mental health staff.” (December 21, 2020 email on file with WDOC Public Records Unit)

A program (our ubiquitous friend, the program!) offered by mental health staff. With such programs, and apples and oranges to look for, it’s a wonder the recidivism rate remains so high.

Therapeutic artwork from the Cage Your Rage curriculum

There is another way that these packets are used as a pretext to keep prisoners housed in solitary indefinitely. Not only is the prisoner often made to wait before he may begin doing the packets, but generally he is permitted to do just one packet every two weeks. This was true in the Oregon Department of Corrections as well, at least until 2013 [8].

Having completed the first program assigned to me by the WDOC, I was transferred in 2014 from the IMU at Monroe Correctional Complex to IMU South at WSP and assigned another program, this one called ACT (the meaning of which escapes me at the moment, but I’m sure it’s sufficiently asinine). When I inquired as to when I might begin the program I was informed there was a waiting list. Evidently six inmates at a time would be escorted to a room, chained to very expensive chairs conveniently sold by Correctional Industries, and provided edification, Soviet style, by a morally upright counselor whose only rectitudinous blemish was that he just happened to perpetuate the misery of caged human beings for a living. Other than that, he had much to impart to the nescient prisoners.

A political cartoon features Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Steven Sinclair holding the logos of various progressive non-profit criminal justice reform organizations in his left hand and the accoutrements of solitary confinement and its systemic reinforcements on his right. Words above the Secretary read: "The Washington Department of Corrections' left hand knows what its right hand is doing."
WA DOC Secretary Steve Sinclair is featured in this cartoon, the details of which are explained here.

When I asked how long of a wait I was facing I was told at least several months. There were cracks in the program. In the meantime, I had radio [9] programs to listen to, the food service program to participate in thrice daily (assuming the squirrelly fellers didn’t sneak by unannounced with the food as they are wont to do), the pacing program, and the “stare at the four walls as they close in and regret every decision you ever made in your life that caused you to fall into the clutches of benighted savages in cheap suits who toss human beings into solitary confinement as casually as other bureaucrats use staplers” program.

If prison officials were sincere in their desire to help prisoners overcome whatever anger issues they might have, rather than assign packets such as Cage Your Rage, they would do well to stop thinking altogether of cages as solutions to perceived problems. But of course that isn’t what they want, and therein lies the great distinction between themselves and the arbitrary punishers of the classical world. For though the Greek gods were motivated by lust, anger, jealousy, and other base instincts, they at least acknowledged as much and did not veil their punishments behind pseudo-scientific jargon.

If only we were half as enlightened as those monsters.

“For ‘punishment’ is what revenge calls itself; with a hypocritical lie it creates a good conscience for itself.”
– Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

(Footnotes for this essay can be found here.)

References

  • Andersen, H. 1856. I Sverrig. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel.
  • Baker, M. (2019, Nov. 16). Prison’s Tips for Inmates in Solitary. The New York Times.
  • Brownfield, C. (1965). Isolation: Clinical and Experimental Approaches. New York: Random House.
  • Dickens, C. (1842/1985). American Notes. London: Penguin.
  • Fisher, L. et al. (2016). Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons. Mountlake Terrace, WA: Prison Voice Washington.
  • Grassian, S. 1983. Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement. American Journal of Psychiatry. 140: 1450–54
  • Haney, C. 1993. Infamous Punishment: The Psychological Consequences of Isolation. National Prison Project Journal, 8(spring): 3–7
  • Hinkle, L. and Wolff, H. 1956. Communist Interrogation and Indoctrination of ‘Enemies of the State’. AMA Archives of Neurology and Psychology, 76: 115–74.
  • Rhodes, L. 2004. Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • State v. Miller, 61 Wash. 125, 111 Pac. 1053 (1910).
  • Suedfeld, P. (1969). Introduction and Historical Background. In Sensory Deprivation: Fifteen Years of Research, ed. John P. Zubeck. New York: Appleton-Century-Crafts.
  • Touch, H. 1992. Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Vernon, J. 1965. Inside the Black Room. London: Souvenir Press.

Suggested Reading

One thought on “Cages Are All the Rage: Doubling Down on Centuries of Failure

  1. I’ve been a volunteer in one of the WA DOC IMU’s for many years. It was tough to read this because it reflects many things I’ve heard and learned through the years. And because there’s not a lot of “programming” available in IMU’s from people and organizations on the outside, and of course the pandemic has brought it all to a halt and there’s nothing I can do but wait for the next opportunity to show up as a regular person who cares. Many men I’ve met through the years stay in my loving thoughts and consciousness, but I have no DOC-sanctioned ability to communicate with them, even though I’ve gotten to know some of them quite well through multiple “programming” experiences, and it feels sometimes like that exacerbates trauma and abandonment issues, especially with younger guys, some of whom are just teenagers.

    Like

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