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Supermax Prisons: Their Rise, Current Practices, and Effect on Inmates

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 84 Issue: 2 Dated: June 2004 Pages: 248-264
Jesenia Pizarro; Vanja M. K. Stenius
Rosemary L. Gido
Date Published
June 2004
17 pages
This article examines the development of the super-maximum (supermax) prison, explains how they operate, and examines their potential effects on inmate populations.
In the past decade, the prison population in the United States, which has the largest prison system in the world, has skyrocketed. Between 1973 and the early 1990’s, the number of prisoners increased by 332 percent, and the incarceration rate per 100,000 citizens increased 200 percent. This exponential growth has brought with it an increase in young, more violent inmates as well as court rulings affecting the powers of guards and administrators. The combination of these factors has led to the development of more effective ways to manage penal institutions and to ensure prison safety. This article looks at one of these approaches, the supermaximum, or supermax, prison. Supermax prisons separate the most serious and chronic troublemakers from the general prison population, housing inmates in solitary confinement, with minimal human contact and virtually no educational, religious, or other programs. As the level of assaults and violence directed toward correctional staff members and other inmates escalated in the early 1970’s, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) developed the high-security prison in Marion, IL, into a supermax facility. In a 1997 survey, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) found that over 55 supermax facilities or units were operating nationwide. A survey of these institutions found that all supermax prisons share certain defining features: inmates are confined to their cells 22 to 23 hours per day; human contact is limited to instances when medical staff, clergy, or counselors stop in front of inmates’ cells during routine rounds; and physical contact is limited to being touched through security doors by correctional officers while being put in restraints or having restraints removed. Placement in a supermax facility does not depend on a formal disciplinary hearing but rather is based on the criminal and behavioral history of an inmate while incarcerated. The survey also found that most facilities do not have written criteria under which inmates can be transferred out of supermax prisons, and the amount of time inmates serve in these facilities varies across jurisdictions. A 1999 survey found that operating costs for supermax prisons are generally among the highest when compared to those of other prisons. Another area of concern is the legal and ethical issues surrounding supermax prisons, which remain unclear. Critics of such facilities claim that supermax conditions are in violation of the eighth amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, yet Federal courts continue to maintain that these conditions, while horrible, are necessary for security reasons. Finally, the majority of research conducted on the effects of restricted environments, such as solitary confinement, show that inmates placed in these environments for prolonged periods of time tend to develop psychological problems. This research was not conducted on inmates confined to supermax facilities, and as such, only inferences can be made to these institutions. This study shows that more research is needed to better understand the use of supermax prisons, the impact that they have on inmates while in the facilities as well as after release, and ultimately the implications for affected communities. 45 references