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The Federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, warrants media attention for at least two reasons.

November 7, 1983, marked the beginning of a lockdown at Marion that now has lasted almost four years, making it the longest continual lockdown in U.S. prison history.

Marion also features a Control Unit — a “prison within a prison” — an experimental laboratory where the Federal Bureau of Prisons tests such behavior modification techniques as “intense sensory deprivation, indefinite solitary confinement, and forced drugging.”

The lockdown was started after two prisoners killed two guards in 1983 which triggered a violent mass assault by sixty guards against the prison population. The lockdown continues despite convictions obtained in both murder cases.

Prisoners are locked in their cells 23 hours a day, seven days a week. They have no contact visits with family or friends, no access to the main law library, no congregational religious services, no jobs, no school, or any other type of program. They are shackled any time they leave their cells for any reason. They are also subjected to frequent “chain downs” — forced to lie on a concrete slab with their arms and legs chained down.

According to Warden Jerry Williford, Marion has the “unique mission” of handling the “most difficult and recalcitrant” inmates, those classified “Level Six” by the Bureau. However, a Congressional study revealed only 70 of 343 Marion prisoners were actually Level Six. Critics charge that the others are arbitrarily put there because the Bureau cannot justify operating an entire unit like Marion for just 70 men.

Legal recourse for the locked-down prisoners seems remote. After the original assault by the guards in 1983, attorneys from the Marion Prisoners’ Rights Project were illegally denied visitation rights. Only after a Federal judge threatened a court order did prison officials let them in and then they were not allowed to take pictures of prisoners’ scars and bruises. More recently, Marion prisoners filed a class-action suit contesting the lockdown but U.S. Magistrate Kenneth J. Meyes ruled in Marion’s favor, continuing the lockdown.

A phone conversation with Jan Susler, attorney for the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, in early April, revealed that the lockdown is still underway and that “human rights continue to be violated … with physical, mental, and emotional abuse occurring daily at Marion.”


THE PROGRESSIVE, January 1986, “Locked Down In Lockup,” by Michael McConnell, pp 16-17; phone conversation with Jan Susler, attorney for the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (312/427-2539).