Supermax prisons are controversial for several reasons, not limited to their lockdown policies, lack of amenities, prisoner isolation techniques, strategies of dehumanization, and overall conditions of confinement. Over the past two decades in the United States, correctional systems at the state and federal levels have introduced or expanded the use of supermax prisons (King 1999). These facilities—also known as special (or security) handling units (SHUs) or control handling units (CHUs)—are either stand-alone correctional institutions or wings or annexes inside an already existing prison.
II. Conditions of Confinement
III. Effects of Incarceration
Supermax prisons are a result of the recent growth in incarceration that has occurred throughout many of the world’s advanced industrialized countries (Toch 2001). In October 1983, after the brutal stabbing to death of two correctional officers by inmates at the federal maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois, the facility implemented a 23-hour-a-day lockdown of all convicts. The institution slowly changed its policies and practices and was retrofitted to become what is now considered a supermax prison. In 1994, the federal government opened its first supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, specifically designed to house supermax prisoners. The facility was dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
In the years that followed, many state departments of corrections built their own supermax prisons. Part of the reason for the proliferation of supermax prisons is the conservative political ideology that started in the Reagan administration (1981–1989). During the 1980s, as a response to an increase in the public’s fear of crime and to the demise of the “rehabilitative ideal,” a punitive agenda took hold of criminal justice and led to an increased number of people incarcerated. This approach was carried forward by George H. W. Bush (1989–1993), Reagan’s Republican successor.
Originally designed to house the most violent, hardened, and escape-prone criminals, supermaxes are increasingly used for persistent rule breakers, convicted leaders of criminal organizations (e.g., the Mafia) and gangs, serial killers, and political criminals (e.g., spies and terrorists) (Lovell et al. 2001; Bruton 2004). In some states, the criteria for admission into a supermax facility and the review of prisoners’ time inside are very loose or even nonexistent.
The number of convicts being sent to supermax prisons is growing. The supermax maintained by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) in Florence, Colorado, for example, incarcerates about 430 people, including such notable criminals as “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing coconspirator Terry Nichols, and former FBI agent and Soviet/Russian spy Robert Hanssen. Nevertheless, only a fraction of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons are sent to a supermax facility. In 2004, approximately 25,000 inmates were locked up in this type of prison, representing well under 1 percent of all the men and women who are currently incarcerated across the country (Harrison and Beck 2005; Mears 2005).
The U.S. detention facility located at the Guantanamo Bay military installation is effectively a supermax prison. It houses approximately 190 persons suspected of participating in terrorist activities directed against the Unites States. Numerous controversies, however, surround the Guantanamo detainees and their legal status. Indeed, the prison itself is considered by many to lie outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. legal system, although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the prisoners must, at least be allowed to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts. Because of the controversies involved, the Guantanamo prison is slated to close in 2011 or 2012 and an existing facility in Thomson, Illinois, is to be outfitted as a supermax unit to house most of the remaining detainees.
Conditions of Confinement
One of the more notable features of all supermax prisons is the fact that prisoners are typically locked down 23 hours a day. Other than supervision by correctional officers (COs), prisoners have virtually no contact with other people (fellow convicts or visitors). Access to phones and mail is strictly and closely supervised or restricted. Supermax prisoners have very limited access to privileges such as watching television or listening to the radio.
Supermax prisons also generally do not allow inmates to either work or congregate during the day. (There are notable exceptions. The Maryland Department of Corrections, for example, allows some supermax inmates to congregate during yard time.) In addition, there is absolutely no personal privacy; everything the convicts do is monitored, usually through a video camera that is on all day and all night. Communication with the correctional officers typically takes place through a narrow window on the steel door of the cell and/or via an intercom or microphone system.
Although cells vary in size and construction, in general, they are 12 by 7 feet in dimension. A cell light usually remains on all night long, and furnishings consist of a bed, a desk, a stool made of poured concrete, and a stainless steel sink and toilet. In spite of these simple facilities and the fact that prisoners’ rehabilitation is not encouraged (and is next to impossible), supermax prisons are more expensive than others to build and run.
In supermaxes, inmates rarely have access to educational or religious materials or services. Almost all toiletries (e.g., toothpaste, shaving cream, and razors) are strictly controlled (Hallinan 2003). When an inmate is removed from his cell, he typically has to kneel down with his back to the door. Then he is required to place his hands through the door to be handcuff ed.
Effects of Incarceration
When it comes to supermax prisons, the mass media and academia have been relatively silent because it is difficult for reporters and researchers to gain access to these or most other penal facilities. In addition, correctional professionals are reluctant to talk with outsiders for fear that they may be unnecessarily subjected to public scrutiny. And even though comprehensive psychological data on individuals kept in these facilities are lacking, numerous reports have nonetheless documented the effects.
All told, the isolation, lack of meaningful activity, and shortage of human contact takes its toll. Supermax prisoners often develop severe psychological disorders, including delusions and hallucinations, which may have long-term negative effects (Rhodes 2004). Furthermore, the conditions inside supermax prisons have led several corrections and human rights experts and organizations (like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union) to question whether these prisons are a violation of (1) the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the state from engaging in cruel and unusual punishment and/or (2) the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which were established to protect not only the rights of people living in the free world but also of those behind bars.
Supermax prisons have plenty of down sides, and not just for the inmates (Lippke 2004). Some people have suggested that all supermax prisons are part of the correctional–industrial complex (see, for example, Christie 2003). Most of the supermaxes in the United States are brand new or nearly so. Others are simply freestanding prisons that were retrofitted. According to a study by the Urban Institute, the annual per-cell cost of a supermax is about $75,000, compared with $25,000 for each cell in an ordinary state prison.
We have plenty of superexpensive supermax facilities—two-thirds of the states now have them. But they were designed when crime was considered a growing problem, and now we have a lower rate of violent crime, which shows no real sign of a turn for the worse. However, as good as these prisons are at keeping our worst offenders out of the way, the purpose of the supermax is in flux.
No self-respecting state director of corrections or correctional planner will admit that the supermax concept was a mistake. And one would be wrong to think that these prisons can be replaced by something drastically less costly. But prison experts are beginning to realize that, just like a shrinking city that finds itself with too many schools or fire departments, the supermax model must be made more flexible in order to justify its size and budget.
One solution is for these facilities to house different types of prisoners. In May 2006, Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials announced that, over the past 16 years, the state’s supermax facility in Boscobel—which cost $47.5 million (in 1990) and has a capacity of 500 inmates—has always stood at 100 cells below capacity. It will house maximum-security prisoners, or serious offenders, but individuals who represent a step down from the worst of the worst.
The Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, also known as the Baltimore Supermax prison, opened in 1989 at a cost of $21 million with room for 288 inmates. Like its cousin in Wisconsin, it has never functioned at capacity. It holds not only the state’s most dangerous prisoners but also 100 or so inmates who are working their way through the federal courts. It also serves as the home for Maryland’s 10 death row convicts. Converting cells is one approach, but not the only one. Other ideas include building more regional supermaxes and filling them by shifting populations from other states. This would allow complete emptying out of a given supermax and then closing it down or converting it to another use.
There is also the possibility that some elements of the supermax model could be combined with the approaches of traditional prisons, creating a hybrid that serves a wider population. But different types of prisoners would have to be kept well away from each other—a logistical problem of no small concern.
Jeffrey Ian Ross
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