Supermax is short for super-maximum security. Supermax prisons are places intended to house violent prisoners or prisoners who might threaten the safety of the guards or other prisoners. Some prisons that are not intended as supermax prisons have control units in which circumstances are similar. The concept is that solitary confinement and sensory deprivation will bring about behavior changes (What is a Supermax prison). Twenty years ago, supermax prisons were rare in America. Today more than two-thirds of states have some sort of supermax facility (Mears). Long-term solitary detention, in which a prisoner is cut off from almost all human communication and interaction for an extended period of time, is a practice that is almost exclusive to the United States. While many contest the benefits of solitary confinement, others contend that it is needed for some high-profile and dangerous criminals (Trent).
Supermax prisoners are housed in small cells for approximately 23 hours out of every day (What is a Supermax prison). They have almost no contact with other people. There are no group activities, no work, no educational chances, no eating together, no sports, no getting together with other people for religious services, and no attempts at rehabilitation. They are not given contact visits. Prisoners are kept behind a plexi-glass window. Phone calls and visitation freedoms are severely limited. Books and magazines may be denied and pens controlled under certain circumstances. TV and radios may be forbidden or, if allowed, are controlled by guards and not prisoners (Mears).
Prisoners have very little or no personal privacy at all. Guards watch the inmates’ actions by way of video cameras. Communication between prisoners and the control booth officers is mostly done by way of speakers and microphones. An officer at a control center may be able to monitor cells and corridors and control all doors by electronic means. Characteristically, the cells have no windows. Lights are restricted by guards who may leave them on night and day. For exercise, there is typically only a room with high concrete walls and a chin-up bar. Showers may be restricted to three per week for not more than ten minutes (What is a Supermax prison).
Some sources propose the main rationale is to protect other inmates and staff. How this protection takes place is unclear. The rotten apple theory suggests that removing the most violent inmates helps stop other inmates from committing assaults and infractions. An alternative argument is that supermax prisons incapacitate the worst inmates, preventing them from injuring others. According to this viewpoint, there is no rotten apple effect per se. Rather, any overall decrease in prison violence results totally from incapacitating the most violent and serious offenders.
There are many possible impacts of prisons that are intended or unintended and that can be positive or negative. For example, supermax prisons may advance the capability of general population prison wardens to control prisoners (Mears ; Watson). They also may permit prisons to better manage intensive inmate population while yielding competences both within the new facilities and in general inmate prisons. But they also may have no influence on general prison circumstances, and working conditions within supermax prisons may decrease family visitation, the ability to provide educational and vocational services to supermax inmates due to recurrent lockdowns or induce or aggravate mental disorders (Mears). Such influences in turn may impede the ability of supermax parolees to transition successfully back into society. “In addition, for supermax officers, there may be higher rates of stress, which might result in increased sick leave, medical care for injuries, decreased work performance, and decreased inmate safety due to understaffing” (What is a Supermax prison, 1).
There is indication that proposes that supermax prisons contribute to inadvertent effects, such as increasing mental illness among supermax inmates and disorder in general population facilities. For instance, in a study done by Briggs et al. (2003) an interrupted time-series analysis was used to look at changes in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults, respectively, in four states (Mears ; Watson). The authors found that the opening of supermax prisons had no effect on, and may have amplified, system wide violence, except in one state where a sustained decline in inmate-on-staff assaults occurred (Mears). Whether such effects are actually caused by supermaxes is unknown. The anxiety, however, is that cooperatively they may offset the benefits of supermaxes. On the other hand, there may be positive unintentional effects that would help bolster the case for these prisons and that thus should be included in any balanced assessment (Mears ; Watson).
Supermax prisons have many unintended consequences. Supermax prisons have been portrayed as improving staff success by increasing the quantity and quality of staff training, teamwork and professionalism, and as creating better working conditions for staff, which, in turn, adds to reduced staff burnout and turnover (Mears ; Watson). Prison officials and wardens often note that supermax prisons augment inmate morale and insights among inmates that prison authority is genuine. Supermax prisons also allegedly make it easier to distribute programming to general population inmates. There are also effects that fall exterior of the correctional system. For instance, supermax prisons boost public perceptions of wellbeing, improve the correctional system’s association with local communities, advance local economies, and, more commonly, intensify the status of the correctional system among correctional agencies in other states (Mears).
Life in a maximum-security prison is an excruciating experience that influences inmates’ behavior and psychological well-being. In addition to restricting inmates’ behavior and autonomy, incarceration punishes them emotionally and psychologically through what is known as the pains of imprisonment. “These include the feelings of deprivation and frustration caused by the (a) loss of liberty, (b) loss of autonomy, (c) lack of heterosexual relationships, (d) deprivation of goods and services, and (e) lack of personal security and safety. Inmates in supermax facilities suffer these pains in addition to almost complete isolation, although personal security and safety may be greater for inmates in supermax facilities than for those in general populations because they do not have contact with other inmates (Mears & Watson). The addition of isolation, however, suggests that the pains of imprisonment in supermax facilities are more severe than those in maximum-security prisons. Consequently, any negative emotional or psychological reactions to imprisonment should be greater in supermax facilities than in lower security facilities” (Pizarro & Stenius,1).
The costs related to supermax facilities are not limited to imprisonment costs. If these inmates have been abused, treated violently, and confined in dehumanizing conditions that threaten their mental health, then they may leave prison angry, dangerous, and far less capable of leading law-abiding lives than when they entered prison (Mears & Watson). It is probable that inmates who have spent prolonged periods in solitary confinement have a more difficult time adjusting to life outside of prison, especially given the potential for the development or exacerbation of psychological problems. Supermax inmates may be more likely than comparable inmates serving sentences in regular institutions to recidivate or to escalate their offending. Furthermore, the presence of psychological problems means that the release of these individuals into society poses additional burdens on communities trying to effectively deal with mentally ill offenders (Pizarro & Stenius).
The overall constitutionality of supermax prisons remains unclear. The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, requires that prisoners be afforded a minimum standard of living. Many argue that the living conditions and treatment provided to inmates in supermax facilities do not meet the standards of the Eighth Amendment. Federal court judges, however, have repeatedly ruled that prolonged segregation is cruel and unusual punishment only for the mentally ill. U.S. district courts maintain that although the conditions in these institutions are horrible, they are necessary for security reasons and therefore do not violate inmates’ constitutional rights (Pizarro ; Stenius).
Given that the courts have yet to rule supermax prisons as being in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the major issue to be looked at is the standards for placing and keeping a prisoner in supermax. On one side the inmates contend that since the conditions are so much more harmful in supermax than in a general population prison, administrators ought to have a reason, like assaulting a guard or dealing drugs, before they can place a person (Mears & Watson). It is also thought that there ought to be impartial standards that a prisoner can meet in order to work his way out of supermax and back into the general population. On the other side, the government argues that the prisoners are like property and prison administrators should have comprehensive power to place any inmate wherever they want him, regardless of his actions and irrespective of the conditions in the prison. Administrators persist that the criterion for placing and keeping an inmate in a supermax remain completely subjective and are based solely on their professional judgment as to the inmate’s probable future behavior (Rudolph).
Back in the 1990’s a prisoner brought a case before the Supreme Court, claiming that his due process rights were violated as a consequence of his being sentenced to thirty days in Disciplinary Segregation (Sandin v. Conner). The Court ruled that since it was just thirty days, where the conditions are the same as in any supermax, there was not enough evidence to associate Sandin’s liberty interests. But the Supremes speculated that if Sandin had been living in such uncharacteristic circumstances for a long period of time he would have had a liberty interest in staying away from placement in such an isolation unit. And if that were the case, then the government had a compulsion to provide some form of due process before they could reasonably transfer and keep an inmate in long-term segregation. The court referred to this as Administrative Segregation (AS) as opposed to Disciplinary Segregation (Rudolph).
. Supermaxes are designed to house inmates under Administrative Segregation long term but how much due process was due to inmates in supermax the court hasn’t said. In 2006, a group of inmates housed in a supermax in Ohio were back before the Supreme Court to get an answer (Wilkinson v. Austin). The Court’s ruled that inmates were not due much due process. Yes, prison administrators had to give inmates due process in order to place and keep them at Ohio’s supermax, said the Court, but very minimal due process standards were sufficient (Mears & Watson). First, administrators had to give an inmate notice of his impending transfer to the supermax. Second, they had to give him the opportunity to contest his transfer to supermax. And third, while at supermax he had to be given a meaningful periodic review in order to keep him there. At the review, the inmate could again challenge his placement in the supermax. The trouble is the Supreme Court left it up to the prison administrators to decide the standards for placing and keeping an inmate in a supermax. Many feel that the meaningful periodic reviews every six months are nothing more than just formalities (Rudolph).
The biggest reason for the use of solitary confinement in these types of prisons is when prisoners are dangerous to others. Supporters of solitary confinement argue that some prisoners need to be separated from society at large for their own safety and the safety of others (Trent). It is felt that for the protection of the inmate as well as the guards that this is the best route for some.
The most evident con of solitary confinement is the adverse effect on mental health that being cut off from human contact can have on prisoners. In the early years of solitary confinement, researchers noted augmented suicide and mental illness among prisoners. Studies have also found that solitary confinement harms parts of the brain which can cause the brain to be as diminished as the brains of those who have experienced traumatic head injury. Inmates who have experienced long-term solitary confinement often become lethargic, dispirited and depressed (Trent).
Solitary confinement can also make it more problematic for inmates to integrate themselves back into society as solitary confinement can cause inmates to lose the capacity to regulate their lives and have normal interactions with people (Mears & Watson). Studies have also shown that inmates who have experienced solitary confinement are more disposed to episodes of severe anger and depression, both conditions which are thought to lead to recidivism (Trent).
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights halted the extradition of four terrorism suspects from the United Kingdom to the United States. The court found that the applicants had raised a serious question whether their possible long-term incarceration in a U.S. “supermax” prison would violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits “torture or … inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The court noted that “complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason” (Fathi, 1).
Despite these many warnings, supermax prisons are common in the United States. In the 1990s they were a strong fad, yet another instrument used in the continuous “tough on crime” national policy on crime. It seemed that suddenly everyone had to have a supermax prison. By the end of the decade, more than 30 states, as well as the federal government, were operating a supermax facility or unit (Fathi). These types of facilities are still very popular in the US, but the fad has not caught on around the world. In reality, these types of facilities are looked down upon in most other parts of the world as being cruel and inhumane punishment.