Supermax Prisons:  The Punitive Extreme of the American Correctional System


Danielle M. Shields*


Suddenly, he put his finger to his mouth and told me to be completely silent. “Do you hear that? It is the buzz of those damn lights.  Everyone knows that one of the ways you torture someone is to keep them locked up with the lights on twenty-four hours a day.  That’s what they are doing here.” (Earley, 1993, p. 228)


In line with the infamous “tough on crime” movement, Supermax prisons were crafted to both house and control the most dangerous inmates that the correctional system has to offer.  Riveland, in a report to the National Institute of Corrections (1999), defines the Supermax as:


a highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit within a secure facility, or an entire secure facility, that isolates inmates from the general prison population and from each other due to grievous crimes, repetitive or violent institutional behavior, the threat of escape or actual escape from high-custody facility(s), or inciting or threatening to incite disturbances in a correctional institution (p. 6).


The inmates that are housed in Supermaxes are aptly described as “the worst of the worst,” and are said to have behaved violently towards correctional staff and fellow inmates, displayed predatory traits, and or failed to abide by the rules of a general population correctional setting (King, Steiner, & Ritchie Breach, 2008).  The cornerstone of Supermax facilities is the fact that inmates are locked in a small, high security cell for approximately 23 hours a day, thus removed from the general population.  In theory, inmates are permitted to leave their cells for exercise 1 to 2 times a week, but in practice, inmates are often denied this opportunity.  When inmates are allowed to exercise, it is done in razor-wire cages in the company of no more than two to three inmates.  When escorted from their cells, be it for visitation, showering, or exercise, inmates are required to place their hands through a slot in the front of their reinforced steel cell door to be handcuffed (Irwin & Austin, 2001).  In Supermax facilities, the overwhelming philosophy is one of total control, as inmates are constantly reminded that “prison administrators have total physical control over all aspects of the inmate’s behavior” (Irwin & Austin, 2001, p. 118).


While, to some, Supermax prisons might sound like an intuitive answer to particularly troublesome inmates, there are many unintended consequences, both for inmates and the correctional system itself, which are associated with the implementation of Supermax facilities.  There are tangible costs that the prisoner must endure, in terms of access to programming; in a Supermax, programming is, for all intensive purposes, non-existent.  Inmates are unable to access or participate in vocational training, schooling, libraries, and other recreational activities that make life in prison more bearable and productive (Irwin & Austin, 2001).  Inmates, removed from a general population setting, are no longer able to socialize with other inmates and have little to no contact with other people, as many aspects of the Supermax prison are controlled remotely (Riveland, 2009).


Additionally, prisoners in a Supermax facility are forced to cope with the psychological pains of existing in an environment founded upon the principles of solitary confinement, hopelessness, and labeling one as a throw-away deviant.  If an inmate has a psychological disorder, it is exacerbated; if they do not enter with psychological problems, they will surely begin to feel the emotional effects of prolonged isolation (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008).  The psychological process of adjusting to prison, termed “prisonization,” has been described as a type of secondary socialization wherein one adjusts to prison life and its customs, eventually absorbing the institution in which he is placed as a part of himself, making transition to outside life difficult at best (Gillespie, 2002).  It is conceivable, that, because of the punitive nature of Supermax facilities, the degree of prisonization in inmates is saturated, drastically harming an inmate’s chance to become a productive member of society. There is also evidence that placement in a Supermax facility is conducive to a self-fulfilling prophecy of “the worst of the worst,” resulting in inmate misbehavior and violence (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008).


In addition to the problems Supermax facilities pose to inmates, from a purely public policy standpoint, some have asserted that Supermax facilities pose several problems (Mears, 2008).  First and foremost, it has been extremely difficult for social science researchers to compile even basic statistics about Supermax prisons because of the high degree of security (Naday & Freilich, 2008).  In practice, it has been asserted that placements in Supermax facilities are based upon arbitrary criteria at the discretion of prison officials, as prisoners are “assigned” subjectively, without necessarily having committed rule-based infractions (Irwin & Austin, 2001).  This practice threatens their ostensible usefulness in terms of removing truly dangerous inmates and, in turn, creates an additional way for prison officials to control and intimidate inmates in general population settings.  Critics also argue that Supermax prisons are not actually needed, but, rather, there is a merely perception of need for such facilities because of the “tough on crime” movement.  It has been noted that nobody actually knows if Supermax prisons meet their goals of controlling behavior and preventing disorder, based on the questionable design of projects that have examined this issue.  Finally, critics have also advanced that argument that Supermax prisons demonstrate little, if any, efficiency in terms of financial costs and benefits (Mears, 2008).


The Rise of the Supermax


          The precedent of modern Supermax facilities can be traced to Alcatraz, one of the most notorious and publicized correctional facilities that ever existed in the United States.  Prior to its closure in 1964, Alcatraz housed inmates that were known for being problematic, such as individuals that were exceptionally violent, known for rioting, or well-versed in the art of escaping prisons (Riveland, 1999).  In 1963, to replace Alcatraz, Marion Federal Penitentiary was built and, at the time, was the only level-six prison in the United States (Earley, 1993).  At first, Marion was treated as an open institution and inmates were permitted to leave their cells.  During this time period, the philosophy of correctional facilities was one of rehabilitation, but as violent incidents within prisons became more commonplace, there was a shift toward more punitive treatment of troublesome prisoners.


          In response to the rise of institutional violence, in 1979, a special high-security unit was created at Marion with the goal increasing safety for staff and preventing inmate-on-inmate violence and riots.  However, this unit was not successful in quelling the violence that had simply grown out of control, and a concentration of violent troublemakers proved to be somewhat of a ticking time bomb:


Every warden in the entire system suddenly had an opportunity to get rid of his worst inmates by sending them to us, and that is exactly what they did,” a veteran Marion guard recalled.  “I’m not certain that anyone in Washington really understood just how many bad apples we had streaming in here (Earley, p. 228).


Over time, the unit continued to deteriorate and violence became more commonplace within the walls of Marion:


Prison logs would later show that between January 1980 and October 1983, there were more serious disturbances at Marion than at any other prison, including fourteen escape attempts, fifty-eight serious inmate-on-inmate assaults, thirty-three attacks on staff, and nine murders (Earley, p. 229).


October 22, 1984, in particular, was one of the bloodiest days in the history of Marion, with the brutal murder of two correctional officers, each stabbed to death by inmates in separate altercations (Earley, 1993).  In order to regain control, the entire prison was placed in lockdown for two days, in which inmates were not permitted to leave their cells.  A few days after lifting the lockdown, a group of inmates attacked correctional officers and an inmate was murdered (Earley, 1993).  After the declaration of a state of emergency, a SORT team was sent in to calm the disorder that had become routine at Marion.  After the facility was stabilized, it became permanently locked down and has remained so ever since (Riveland, 1999).  The use of such facilities is now widespread.  As of 2004, it has been estimated that there are 25, 000 inmates that reside in Supermax facilities across 44 states (Mears, 2005).


          Aside from a desire to control inmates that were otherwise intractable and to prevent violence against staff, the rationale for Supermax facilities can be associated with an evolving, increasingly punitive public opinion (Pizarro et al., 2006).  Overall, at appears that three main factors led to the rise of the Supermax and have secured its popularity: (1) the downfall of rehabilitation in corrections, (2) the resulting change in the goals of the penal system, and (3) a renewed political and economical emphasis on crime control (Pizzaro et al., 2006).  As previously mentioned, the decline of the rehabilitation played a large role in the popularity of Supermax facilities.  Specifically, the lack of confidence in rehabilitation paved the way for a more retributive model of justice known as ‘just deserts,’ whereby the goals of the justice system became deterrence and incapacitation:  


In the absence of rehabilitation as a primary aim in corrections, prisons have acquired a different reason for being. The prisons of today are intended to punish offenders, prevent them from committing new offenses, and deter others from engaging in criminal behavior.  Within this context, supermax institutions are a natural extension of a correctional environment that has lost faith in rehabilitation and seeks the most expeditious means of dealing with problematic behavior (Pizzaro, 2006, p. 9).


Under the ‘just deserts’ model, crime is subject to blameworthiness and the social circumstances that led offenders to crime in the first place (e.g. poverty, abuse) and efforts at treatment are wholly discarded in favor of harsh punishment; offenders must be punished because they have broken the law and deserve to be punished for their infractions, regardless of the origin of their deviance (Pizzaro et al., 2006).  


          With the advancement of the ‘just deserts’ model came a metamorphosis in the management of penal institutions and their goals for offenders.  Some have termed the changes within the penal system as “new penology” (Pizzarro et al., 2006; Feely & Simon, 1992.  Under new penology, the system, rather than considering genuine remorse or treatment, is hyper-focused on risk assessment and management as well as the overall dangerousness of inmates (Pizzarro et al., 2006, Feely & Simon, 1992).  Supermax prisons meet the demand for controlling unruly inmates via selective incapacitation, consistent with the principles risk management – in fact, it has been argued that the very purpose of Supermax prisons is one of risk management (Pizzarro et al., 2006).  The inmates that are sent to Supermax facilities are not necessarily the true “worst of the worst,” but are simply those who are perceived to be a threat to the stability of institutions by prison staff and administrators (Riveland, 1999).  Officials have defended the use of Supermax prisons, stating that their use is limited to inmates who have displayed dangerous behavior patterns (Pizzaro et al., 2006). 


          Finally, the political and economic incentives associated with crime control have played a role in the rationale for Supermax facilities.  Politics and crime appear to have a symbiotic relationship; people are afraid of being crime victims, and this fear has been noticed and exploited by those in the political arena.  Despite the fact that violent crime has actually been decreasing, the public perceives that crime is on the rise (Robinson, 2009).  False perceptions about crime have resulted in outcries from the public to increase penalties, jail offenders for lengthier periods of time, and ensure the safety of society.  Building upon the moral panic that has surrounded the ostensibly exploding crime rate, it has become acceptable for politicians to wage “wars” on drugs and crime and endorse punitive policies such as the “three strikes” laws (Robinson, 2009; Shelden, 2010; Pizzaro et al., 2006; Bottoms, 1995; Garland, 2001), simultaneously appearing “tough on crime” and soliciting public support.  Politicians have justified their policies, rationalizing that the public wants inmates to serve harsher, longer sentences, but there is also some evidence that there has been a misinterpretation on the part of individuals in favor of increased retribution (Pizzaro, et al., 2006; Applegate, Cullen, & Fisher, 1997; Applegate, Cullen, Turner, & Sundt, 1996; Beckett, 1997; Bottoms, 1995; Flanagan, 1996; Roberts & Stalans, 2000; Roberts et al., 2003).


          Aside from political motivations, there are also economic incentives associated with crime control that are well-documented (Shelden, 2010).  In essence, crime control is a profitable business and Supermaxes are particularly profitable – while the average prison costs $105 million to construct (Shelden, 2010), Supermaxes typically cost twice or three times as much to construct (Mears, 2006).  For instance, Pelican Bay, one of the largest Supermax units in the country, cost an estimated 277.5 million to build, with an annual budget of 180 million for maintenance purposes (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2009).  Because of the increased supervision that is associated with Supermax facilities, more correctional officers, advanced electronic surveillance, and supervision are needed, offering opportunities for employment and upkeep and also adding to overall cost (Riveland, 1999).  Additionally, many prisons are now in rural areas, and ailing rural areas, in particular, have welcomed prison construction as a way to boost their economy (Shelden, 2010).  As the old adage goes, “if crime doesn’t pay, punishment sure does” (Shelden, 2010, p. 37).  This is especially so in the case of the Supermax. 


The Psychology of the Supermax

If I killed myself down here and people came in to investigate, I mean normal-thinking people, not the sick ones you hire to work here, if normal people saw what you are doing to me – with the lights on twenty-four hours a day, not letting me have any visitors, never letting me go outdoors in the sunshine, and all this shit— they’d say, ‘Why’d you leave him down there locked up alone for so long?  Why didn’t you see this coming?  Aren’t you the shrink?  Don’t you know keeping a man in a cage all day with the lights on and without people around is really sick?’ What are you going to tell them, Doc? How you going to justify this? (Earley, 1993, p. 339[MSOffice7] ).


There are a host of psychological consequences that are associated with long-term solitary confinement and imprisonment in Supermax facilities that have been confirmed by anecdotal accounts and empirical evidence alike.  It has been observed in case studies and reported by correctional employees that inmates in Supermax units have displayed severe symptoms of psychological disturbance including: maladjusted sleep patterns, a lack of appetite, anxiety, panic, bouts of rage, hallucinations, paranoia, and self-injury (see Haney, 2003 for a review).  Empirical studies of solitary confinement have also demonstrated harmful psychological effects, such as: sleeplessness, negative affect, withdrawal, obsessive behavior, problems with cognition, depression and hopelessness, hallucinations, aggression, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts and actions (see Haney, 2003 for a review).  Compounding the problem, psychological care is not readily available at Supermax facilities (King, et al., 2008).  


To better extend these findings to the Supermax environment, Haney (2003) conducted interviews with 100 inmates from the Secure Housing Unit (a moniker for Supermax) at Pelican bay in order to assess the prevalence of mental illness and psychological symptoms.  The interviews focused on various indicators of psychological distress that have been utilized by other researchers studying prison populations, such as anxiety, lethargy, sleep disturbance, and feelings of an impending nervous breakdown, among others.  It was found that more than half of the inmates displayed every symptom of psychological distress (with the exception of fainting spells) and nearly every inmate experienced at least one symptom.  Almost all inmates experienced symptoms of anxiety (91%) and a great majority reported feeling like they were on the verge of a nervous breakdown (70%).  A sizable number of inmates also reported feelings of irrational anger and ruminations (88%) and social withdrawal (83%).  Some inmates also reported more troubling symptoms, such as perceptual distortions (44%), hallucinations (41%) and suicidal ideations (27%).  Overall, these symptoms were far less common in prisoners that were placed in normal housing, underscoring the psychological disturbance that is present in Supermax inmates.   


Perhaps because the environment of the Supermax is psychologically adverse, or because administrators are more likely to transfer inmates that are disruptive due to their mental illness, it appears there is a concentration of mentally ill inmates within the walls of Supermaxes.  Lovell (2008) conducted a study of 131 randomly selected inmates in Supermax facilities located in Washington in order to assess their mental health.  In order to measure mental illness, the study relied on indicators of serious mental illness (SMI) such as the diagnosis of a major mental disorder, the prescription of psychotropic drugs, placement in a unit for the mentally ill, and the examination of a clinical interview performed by a DOC employee.  The study also assessed mental illness through the use of the BPRS (Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale), a validated, clinical tool that measures the presence of psychiatric symptoms (87 inmates were assessed with this tool). 


It demonstrated that a sizable number of inmates experienced troubling psychological symptoms.   A total of 60, or 45% of inmates, had one or more indicators of mental illness:  26 inmates had documented signs of serious mental illness, 19 were found to have BPRS symptoms, 32 had psychotic episodes or tried to injure themselves, and 36 had suffered some type of brain damage.  These inmates also demonstrated alarmingly unruly behavior and had longer stays with the DOC:


During the 5 years, on average… their stays had been extended an average of 14 months because of loss of good-conduct time. They had averaged 21 months in supermax or segregation and 4 months in residential mental health units. They averaged 13 transfers between facilities.  Their annual major infraction rate, at 10.5, was higher than the 6.1 annual rate of other study participants and much higher than the annual average of 1 infraction per year observed in a medium security prison (Lovell & Jemelka, 1996). These 60 inmates had committed 135 assaults… on staff. Four of them had infractions for homicide (Lovell, 2008, p.990).


These statistics are cause for concern, especially when one considers that in institutions with lesser security, approximately 13% of inmates are seriously mentally ill (Lovell, 2003).


In light of both the psychological problems caused by residing in a Supermax facility and in order to combat the problems associated with having a large mentally ill population in Supermax facilities, some scholars have made policy recommendations.  Lovell (2008) recommends that the criteria for transfer should be selective and individualized.  Selectivity refers to making sure that placement in a Supermax facility is used as a true last resort rather than placing inmates that are simply bothersome and require additional effort to manage.  Transfers should also be based on individual circumstances rather than following a broad, uniform policy in order to cut down on unnecessary placement. 


Arrigo and Bullock (2008) suggested that inmates with psychological problems should not be placed in Supermax facilities at all, but, rather, should be placed in a correctional environment tailored to the mentally ill where inmates can get the psychological services they desperately need.  Additionally, inmates that are in Supermax facilities should be regularly checked for psychological problems, and if any arise, they should be removed from the facility.  Finally, it was recommended that correctional staff should receive training and be held accountable for abusive behavior towards inmates, as it is thought that the way psychologically impaired inmates behave stems from how they are treated by correctional staff (Arrigo & Bullock, 2008).  It is clear that changes are needed to address the psychological problems experienced by inmates prior to and during their placement at Supermax facilities.




          Another notable consequence of imprisonment is the prisonization, a term that has been coined to describe the transition to prison life through resocialization and the adaptation of prison customs.  In a seminal study of the social aspects of prison life, Clemmer (1958) first described the process of prisonization as “the taking on in greater or less degree of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary” (Clemmer, 1958, p. 299, taken from Gillespie, 2003, p. 22).  Eventually, an inmate learns to adhere to this culture, becoming a part of it.   According to Clemmer (1940), there are several factors that determine the level of prisonization that one experiences (Shelden, Brown, & Fritzler, 2008).  Some of these factors include the length of one’s sentence, a lack of contact with outside individuals, placement in groups with more prisonized inmates, and an unsound personality (Gillespie, 2003).  In particular, a lack of contract with others, placement with prisonized inmates, and mental instability, are associated with the Supermax environment; Supermax inmates are placed with others who particularly embrace the aggressive aspects of inmate culture, are psychologically unstable (Lovell, 2008), and have little contact with other people aside from prison staff (Irwin & Austin, 2001).  


Prisonization is also important to consider in the context of the self-fulfilling prophecy; if inmates develop anti-social tendencies to survive in prison and are labeled as “bad”, it lays the foundation for the fulfillment of such a prophecy.  In another examination of the Secure Housing Unit located at Pelican Bay, King, Steiner, and Breach (2008) assert that the values of the prison, inmates, and officers contribute to a culture of violence, in effect undermining the purpose of the Supermax.  The mission of the prison is tied to controlling “inmates who are management cases, habitual criminals, prison gang members and violence-oriented maximum custody inmates” (CDCR, 1993, p. 1; King et al., 2008).  Yet, the prison suffers from overcrowding, severely undercutting the ability of the prison to reasonably complete its mission and indirectly inciting violence through its inability to control the inmates that it houses due to sheer numbers.  Though designed to house 2,280 inmates, it has been estimated that the prison now holds approximately 3,500 (King et al., 2008).  The inmate subculture, which promotes toughness and misbehavior at all costs, also contributes to a culture of subviolence within Supermax institutions.  It is a reasonable assumption that inmates placed in Supermaxes tend to be those that particularly embrace attitudes of toughness and disruption, as that is very likely what got them assigned in the first place.  This sets the stage for further misbehavior and violence, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy:


When inmates are sent to the SHU at Pelican Bay, they are validated as the “baddest of the bad.” They are declared extremely dangerous, assaultive, violent, and unmanageable in a regular maximum-security environment. Supermax prisons constitute the ultimate incarceration experience for the recalcitrant prisoner who poses such a threat to others, both in prison and outside, that he must be totally isolated (King et. al, 2008, p. 162).


In addition, there is a subculture within correctional officers that contributes to this self-fulfilling prophecy and encourages the abusive treatment of inmates.  Just as there is a social code for inmates, there is also one for correctional officers.  New correctional officers learn to distrust inmates and are taught by older correctional officers that inmates are “less than human” (King et al., 2008, p. 156).  They are taught to act in accordance with other officers, respect older officers, socially distance themselves from inmates, and stay out of other people’s affairs.  These norms are problematic, as they encourage the abuse of inmates and enforce the expectation that other officers and prison administration will stay silent if such abuse occurs (King et al., 2008).  Some officers submit exemplify the same “tough” behavior as inmates, directing violence towards them (King et al., 2008). 


In a lawsuit filed by inmates against Pelican Bay, these assumptions were proven true (King et al., 2008).  Madrid v. Gomez (1995) reveled that correctional officers used excessive force against inmates, relied heavily upon the use of fetal restraints, and that guards lacked proper instruction in the use of force.  The case also revealed the violent nature of cell extractions, in which both staff and inmates are at risk for injury.  As a result, the court determined that Pelican Bay had “excessively and recklessly” utilized force against inmates and that their procedures for doing so were flawed and in need of modification (King et al., 2008, p. 158).  The court also found that silence is indeed encouraged in regards to prisoner abuse:


The court found there were no incentives for officers to report abuse of inmates or misuse of force; indeed, there was resistance to it… the “code of silence” prevails at Pelican Bay. This code is an unwritten, widely understood code that encourages prison employees to remain silent regarding the improper conduct of fellow officers. During the trial, one program administrator testified that the code of silence among correctional officers at Pelican Bay made it difficult for a supervisor to determine what had actually happened in any particular incident (King et al., page 158).


A correctional officer also testified that he was threatened by other officers when he disclosed excessive use of force by another officer. 


In Madrid v. Gomez (1995), it was also discovered that the level of medical care that inmates received was severely deficient and marked by inadequacy both in terms of staff and organization (King et al., 2008).  The mental health care of inmates was also determined to be sorely lacking, and the court stated that inmates with psychological disturbance should be held in other facilities (King et al., 2008).  The findings of this case are important to consider from an effectiveness standpoint because it is quite possible that these practices occur at other Supermax facilities, but have yet to be discovered.  These findings also speak to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) that is associated with Supermax facilities.  It is absurd to believe that inmates placed with other violent inmates in psychologically damaging environment, guarded by captors who, at best, are indifferent, and at worst, are abusive, is an effective method to control these inmates, especially when one considers that some of these same inmates will eventually be released back into society.   

Prisonization and Re-Entry

You see things in prison never change for the better.  They only get worse by the minute when left unattended year after year until convicts finally explode and riot.  The bottom line is –who the heck wants to listen to a cry baby?  And for those who think I got what I deserve, my complaints just bring glee and laughs.  To them this torture –messing with mail, denying visits— is sweet revenge.  All I can say is fine and dandy, go ahead and gloat, but they should remember this about prisoners who go through this sick trip.  Someday most of us finally get out of this hell and even a rational dog after getting kicked around year after year after year attacks when his cage door is finally opened (Earley, 1993, p. 436).


          It is important to consider the gravity of being incarcerated in Supermax prisons, as it is estimated that 95% of individuals in state or federal prisons will eventually be released (Conway, 2002). The concept of prisonization has important implications for prisoner re-entry into society which are particularly applicable due to the harsh nature of Supermax imprisonment.  Goffman (1961) felt that eventually an inmate undergoes discultration, or “an ‘untraining’ which renders him temporarily incapable of managing certain features of daily life on the outside” (p. 13, taken from Gillespie, 2003, p. 23).  For instance, through adjustment to prison life, one eventually comes to expect a loss of control, decision-making, and privacy, eventually becoming attached to a particular structure and routine through simple repetition (Haney, 2001).  However, this is compounded in the Supermax environment where inmates have even less control than is usual in a correctional setting, which may cause problems when they are released and are expected to become self-reliant once more.  It is also possible that because of the harsh boundaries that are present in the Supermax environment may actually limit the future ability of an inmate to control their behavior:


The process of institutionalization in correctional settings may surround inmates so thoroughly with external limits, immerse them so deeply in a network of rules and regulations, and accustom them so completely to such highly visible systems of constraint that internal controls atrophy… (Haney, 2001, p. 7).


Prisonization also impacts crucial interpersonal skills, which, again, is likely exacerbated due to the conditions of Supermax confinement.  Because of the adverse nature of the prison environment, inmates learn to exert a “tough exterior” that serves the purpose of both averting potential attack at the hands of fellow inmates and distancing themselves from others (Haney, 2001).  Inmates learn to control their emotions, as emotional displays are vessels for exploitation by other inmates and staff and are seen as a sign of weakness.  Prisoners may develop a “prison mask” which can severely impede their ability to form healthy social relationships when they are released, and may “find that they have created a permanent and unbridgeable distance between themselves and other people” (Haney, 2001, p, 8).  The effects of social isolation, which are particularly pronounced in the Supermax setting, as inmates have little human contact, can lead inmates to distrust others and “retreat deeply into themselves” (Haney, 2001, p. 8).  Social isolation is also compounded by the increased levels of psychological symptoms inmates experience in these facilities (Haney, 2003; Lovell, 2008).  These antisocial values, which are an integral to prisonization, may be quite difficult to give up when released from prison, creating problems for prisoners and the society that they are released into.  In fact, Clemmer (1940) suggested that the process of prisonization may ultimately make an adjustment to civilian life “next to impossible” (Gillespie, 2003, p. 45).


The Effectiveness of the Supermax


          Because of the difficulties associated with entry into Supermax facilities for the purpose of research (Naday & Freilich, 2008), it has been difficult to assess their effectiveness.  However, Mears (2008) examined the effectiveness of Supermax facilities from a public policy perspective in which he addresses the following questions about the Supermax: (1) if they are truly needed, (2) if they are based on sound design and theory (3) if they properly implemented, (4) if they meet their goals, and (5) if they are cost effective.  Mears (2008) asserts that there isn’t a true need for Supermax facilities, citing that there has not been any empirical examination of the need for such facilities, despite the fact that this is a common practice before investing in new facilities.  Thus, he concludes that Supermaxes are based on a need that is perceived rather than objective, likely based on punitive public attitudes rather than actual sound evidence.  In a related vein, Mears considers the theory upon which Supermaxes are based.  The theoretical assumptions that underlie the use of Supermax facilities are that they deter offenders and, thus, increase order.  However, in reality, this premise is extremely unlikely, as the individuals that are placed in Supermax facilities are probably the least likely to be affected by efforts at deterrence – in fact, it has been theoretically advanced that Supermax prisons may increase disruptive behavior due to outrage at being placed in such an environment (Mears, 2008).  In essence, the logic and rationale for Supermax facilities is, at best, flawed.


          Mears also discusses the implementation of Supermax facilities.  It is likely that Supermax facilities are not used as intended, as the criteria for sending someone to a Supermax is somewhat discretionary, and it is unclear if the individuals that are sent to Supermax are actually those it intends to target.  Though these prisons are supposed to house “the worst of the worst,” it is not known if this is actually the case, as there is a lack of established criteria for placement.  This is further muddied by the fact that the exact intentions of Supermax facilities are themselves unclear, as discussed above.  Additionally, owing to a lack of evaluative research, it is uncertain if these institutions actually meet their goals.  What research has been conducted is conflicting, with some scholars finding that Supermaxes decrease violence and others finding that they increase it.  However, it is of interest to note that a great majority of wardens (90%) believe in the effectiveness of Supermax facilities (Mears, 2005).


          Finally, Mears examined the question of cost-efficiency within Supermax facilities.  This can be broken down into two separate examinations, one which concerns cost-benefit (benefit derived from a policy justified by its cost) and one of cost-effectiveness (the amount of money required to generate a desired outcome) (Mears, 2008).  He concludes that there is a lack of evidence regarding their cost-efficiency.  It is suggested that there may be other methods that cost less to implement but yield results.  Though there is no direct empirical test of this assumption, in light of the operating costs that are associated with Supermax facilities, it is likely that they are not cost-efficient.  It appears that, overall, despite the large sums of money that have been spent on operating these facilities, they have not been examined to determine effectiveness, and thus, such evaluation is crucial.                

Discussion and Conclusions


          This paper served as a review of various aspects of the Supermax: its history and rationale, the psychological experience of residing in such an environment, the negative impact of prisonization, and an examination of its effectiveness.  Based on the available research, it would seem that the Supermax is another product of a punitive society that is driven by retribution rather than effective policy.  Rather than basing decisions on empirical evidence, politicians, prison officials, and the public simply want inmates to “pay for their crimes” instead of looking deeper.  The need for Supermax facilities, if it is based in reality and not a perception of need based on the outcries of citizens, does not appear to be met; inmates in these institutions are still problematic.  The very structure of the Supermax may, in and of itself, promote misbehavior and disorder.  In such a climate, inmates are not rewarded for positive behavior and are only punished for infractions, promoting the fulfillment of a self-fulfilling prophecy that these inmates are the “worst of the worst.”


In addition, Supermax institutions embrace elements of cruelty that are difficult to justify.  Life in the Supermax is rife with psychological disturbance and sensory deprivation, in which inmates are essentially locked in their mind in addition to a reinforced steel cell.   Instead of “learning a lesson,” they become asocial and potentially filled with rage.  They become the product of an environment that is, at best, indifferent to them, and, at worse, abusive.  Even if this type of extreme incapacitation is effective, it is not a permanent solution for every inmate that enters the Supermax, as many inmates who come into contact with the correctional system will eventually be released.  It seems to defy logic that after exposure to this type of incarceration we, as a society, would expect anything other than a repetition of the same antisocial behavior for which inmates were originally incarcerated.  Even if inmates are “lifers” and will never leave a correctional institution, if we are to assume total control of an individual, it needs to be done in a more humane manner.  Though their conduct and their crimes may well be morally reprehensible, for better or worse, they are still human beings.


In light of these findings, there is a need a great need for reform in the Supermax as well as the rest of the prison system.  Though this reform would certainly not be easy, it would be beneficial for inmates and the system.  Supermax prisons are costly and there isn’t any strong evidence suggesting that they are effective.  The prison system is already financially strained, and such institutions potentially contribute to unnecessary spending.  Additionally, for both inmates and correctional officers, the Supermax encourages a culture that is counterproductive to the notion of change and eliminates any reasonable chance of reform.  Though such a culture is inescapable in a situation of differentiated authority, there are things that can be done to lessen its effects.  In order to better cope with the frustration that inevitably accompanies being a correctional officer, officers need extensive training and need to be encouraged to come forward if they suspect another officer is behaving inappropriately.  Likewise, to assist inmates, they should be given appropriate psychological and medical attention.  The criteria for placing inmates in the first place should indicate that such a placement is absolutely necessary.  Finally, Supermax institutions should be empirically assessed to make sure that they are carrying out their intended goals.  The lack of research on the effectiveness of Supermax prisons is disturbing when one considers the far-reaching consequences of placement. 


Finally, we need to address the attitudes of the public and try to understand why it is that people feel inmates are in need of such harsh punishment.  Is it because of the media and the sensationalism that surrounds criminal behavior?  Is it because there is something about retribution that is more satisfying than attempting to help someone?  The ultimate hope for reform comes from each of us.  With the politicization of crime comes a certain advantage.  Society can choose not to reward “tough on crime” policies by understanding what it is that they are supporting and choosing to cast their vote elsewhere.  At any rate, a paradigm shift is desperately needed in order to repair a system that will eventually be unable to sustain itself.  Perhaps with enough time and effort, we can revive the ideals of rehabilitation and the Supermax and the retributive policies that fuel it will be dismantled.  



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* Danielle Shields is a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice, UNLV.  This is a revision of a paper written for a graduate class in the spring, 2010.