I vividly remember my first visit to a supermax prison. In a remote rural part of the United States and in stark contrast to the beautiful landscapes surrounding it, the prison site itself was completely barren, double-fenced with barbed wire, covered by gravel and overlooked by guard towers. It was instantly clear that this is not an ordinary prison.
To enter you must pass through several gates and a highly sensitive metal detector. Once you finally get to the windowless, bunker-like prison building you need to walk through seemingly endless CCTV-monitored corridors and numerous electronically controlled gates – each gate needs to lock behind you before the next one opens – before you even make it to the cell-block. You are then made to wear a protective vest and eye goggles, warned not to get too close to the cell gates and reminded that the prisoners confined there are extremely dangerous individuals.
The appearance of the prison, security arrangements, stories of extreme violence and the accompanying props (goggles, protective vest, and combat uniforms worn by guards) immediately place a barrier, physical as well as psychological, between yourself and the prisoners confined behind the thick metal doors.
If visiting a supermax is unpleasant, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to live in one. Prisoners in a typical supermax will spend their days confined alone in a windowless seven-square-foot cell which contains only a concrete slab and a thin mattress for a bed, a small table and stool made of tamperproof materials, and a metal combo unit of a wash basin and an unscreened toilet, located at the cell front within full sight of prison guards.
Prisoners are confined to their cells for 22 and a half to 24 hours a day. They will only leave it for an hour’s solitary exercise in a barren concrete yard or for a 15-minute shower on alternate days. Technology and design allow for these two activities to take place with a flick of a switch and without direct staff contact. Food, medication, post and any other provisions will be delivered to them through a hatch in their cell door, with little communication or time-wasting.
The regime of relentless solitary confinement and tight prisoner control in a typical supermax is made possible by prison architects. Without their professional knowledge and careful calculation and assessment of every design detail, it would not have been possible to hold hundreds of prisoners in complete isolation from each other within a single, relatively small, building for prolonged periods.
And it is this extreme functionality, calculated to design out human contact and enable maximum prisoner isolation and control, that makes supermax prisons so chilling. As one senior supermax officer put it, “Do we have an obligation to take care of them? Yes. But do I have an obligation to provide him touching, feeling contact with another human being? I would say no. He has earned his way to [supermax] and he’s earned just the opposite. He’s earned the need for me to keep him apart from other people.”
This control of every aspect of prisoners’ daily lives extends beyond the control of their bodies and movement across time and space. All foodstuffs and toiletries will be removed from their original packaging and placed in paper cups before being delivered to prisoners, to prevent them from accessing materials which may be fashioned into weapons. For similar reasons, prisoners will not be served with chicken on the bone or fruit with pips.
The personal belongings that prisoners may keep in their cell are extremely limited in number and type. In one supermax, for example, prisoners may purchase a small black and white speaker-less TV set and keep the following items: one ballpoint pen filler; five books and magazines; one address book; five greeting cards; 15 photographs; 15 sheets of writing paper. The following items are prohibited: hats; headbands; sweatshirts; undershirts; slippers; cotton swabs; hair conditioner, grease, or gel; lip balm; handkerchieves; calendars; clocks; hobby and craft materials; musical instruments; and, bizarrely, correspondence-course materials. The absurdity of some of the prohibitions imposed on supermax prisoners was perhaps best illustrated when officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, turned down a request by a prisoner to receive a copy of two books written by the then presidential candidate, Barack Obama, on the grounds that this would be “potentially detrimental to national security”.
Once inside their small, sparsely furnished and meagrely provisioned cell, prisoners must still follow strict rules and regulations. In one supermax prisoners are issued with the following directives: yelling or loud noises or disruptive behaviour is prohibited. You may not tape or attach anything to any surface of your cell; your mattress must stay on your bed at all times. You must lie on the bed with your head towards the toilet.
Failure to comply or any act of disobedience, large or small, will constitute a disciplinary offence and may result in an extension of the prisoner’s time in a supermax. Cells are searched on a regular basis and occasionally “extracted”, meaning that a team of up to six guards dressed in full riot gear, sometimes assisted by dogs, enter the cell and thoroughly search it. A prisoner who does not cooperate will be gassed with chemical agents and forcibly restrained.
On the rare occasions that prisoners leave their housing unit – for a medical appointment or an infrequent no-contact family visit – they will be shackled and escorted by a minimum of two guards. They will also be body-searched twice – once before leaving the cell and once before being returned to it. Other than cases of complicated medical emergencies which cannot be treated in the prison’s medical clinic and court appearances which cannot be conducted via video-conferencing, supermax prisoners will not leave the inside of the prison building for the duration of their supermax term. For those confined there for an indeterminate time, that can mean the duration of their prison sentence or natural life.
Supermax prisons operate at the deep and far end of a vast (over 1.6 million prisoners) and punitive American criminal justice system. These prisons emerged as an addition to the “traditional” segregation units that still operate in most prisons. Their spread across the US from the early 1990s (the Federal government and some 44 states across the US now operate at least one supermax prison) has found justification in apparently rational arguments for their value as a prison management tool in isolating risk and controlling violence in the prison system as a whole.
Prison officials claim that these large isolation prisons are necessary to safely manage predatory prisoners, the “worst of the worst” in the prison system. Supermax confinement is proposed as the best, indeed the only, solution to safely managing these loosely defined “predators”, a tool of last resort for those with whom “nothing else works”.
However, the simple fact that at least 30,000 prisoners are held in these conditions suggests it is at best unlikely that they are all the violent “super predators” that the official discourse describes. With the exception of the Federal supermax, which does house some of the most notorious criminals in the United States, placement in a supermax has nothing to do with the crime initially committed by the prisoner. Rather, these state-run supermaxes are an internal prison management tool, and placement in them is based on the prisoner’s actual, or predicted, behaviour in prison. Some supermax prisoners are indeed extremely violent individuals who have committed a serious crime such as murder or rape in prison, but many of those confined to a supermax are non-violent offenders who broke prison rules and regulations – in one state offences such as disobedience and “possessing more than $5 in unauthorised funds” can result in a supermax term of 2 years. Others end up in a supermax because of their mental illness, or because they are jailhouse lawyers, prison gang members or other “nuisance” prisoners.
But even if all supermax prisoners did fit the category of the “worst of the worst”, the strict and prolonged solitary confinement and some of the additional deprivations and petty prohibitions in a typical supermax can only serve to dehumanise and debase prisoners, and cannot be said to be founded in necessary or legitimate security considerations. Supermax prisons are a highly excessive administrative response to exaggerated perceptions of dangerousness. They are about power, retribution and reinforcing perceptions of the dangerous other.
The system-wide benefits of supermax prisons also remain questionable. There is little evidence that the introduction of these prisons resulted in a reduction of overall prison violence. On the other hand, there is a large body of evidence consistently and convincingly demonstrating the harmful effects of solitary confinement on health and wellbeing. These effects are particularly devastating for the mentally ill, who are overrepresented in supermax prisons: in Colorado alone, as many as 40 per cent of prisoners housed in segregated housing were suffering mental illness. One of the most commonly reported reactions to regimes of solitary confinement is increased irritability and rage, often manifested in unprovoked violent outbursts. In the absence of others, this violence is often directed inwardly: in California, a reported 69 per cent of prison suicides in 2005 took place in segregated housing. When the prisoner is released back to the general prison population or to society at large, violence may also be directed against others.
Rather than controlling violence, as they officially purport to do, supermax prisons may thus breed mental illness and violence, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, the costs of which may be borne not only by the prisoners themselves but also by the communities to which they will eventually return.
The trend for supermax prisons shows little signs of abating in the US itself, and meanwhile similar prisons have been built in Australia, Brazil, Holland, Peru and South Africa, albeit, at the moment, on a much smaller scale. Any prison administration considering the introduction of a supermax-type prison should assess its financial, medical, legal, moral and societal costs, as well its apparent failure in controlling prison violence, and reject its use as a legitimate prison practice.
Sharon Shalev’s book Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement (Willan, 2009) won the British Society of Criminology’s Book Prize for 2010