The Problem with Supermax Prisons

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The Federal Correctional Complex, including the Administrative Maximum Penitentiary “Supermax” prison, in Florence, Colo., in 2007. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Most of these facilities are overly costly, are needlessly degrading, and don’t work like they’re supposed to.

Super-maximum-security prisons are well-known for being the toughest prisons in America. Intended to be reserved for “the worst of the worst” offenders, they are supposed to be the last stop for prisoners beyond rehabilitation. They occupy something of a presence in our modern society; Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up with Sylvester Stallone in a movie about two hardened criminals escaping from a supermax cell. Unfortunately, this romanticized version of grizzled criminals going away for life in a supermax prison is inaccurate and contributes to an unhealthy prison culture.

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Supermax prisons increased in popularity during the 1980s and ’90s, when politicians were looking to get “tough on crime.” The supermax prisons were intended to house the most violent criminals and to limit contact between gang members so as to lessen the burden on ordinary prisons. More than 30 supermax facilities are operated by states in addition to the federal government’s own supermax facility in Colorado. Looking back, supermax prisons have taken on an outsized role in the American penal system, hurting the overall mission of criminal rehabilitation. Supermax prisons cost millions of dollars to run each year, far more than an average prison, and house fewer prisoners than an average penal facility. Furthermore, these institutions are constantly under legal attack (for good reason), racking up costly attorney bills. The end result is a very expensive process to contain a relatively small number of people. So, who are we paying millions of dollars to lock up?

The idea is that supermax prisons are reserved for society’s worst offenders. However, this is not always the case. Supermax prisons can’t always fill every cell with maximum-security prisoners, which means they often have available space. When local prison officials deal with overcrowded facilities, they often transfer prisoners to empty supermax cells. This tendency is quite natural, but it leads to tragic outcomes.

Daniel Fathi, the director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote for the ACLU about this problem, saying:

In overcrowded prison systems, the typical response has been to fill the remaining supermax cells with “nuisance prisoners” — those who file lawsuits, violate minor prison rules, or otherwise annoy staff, but by no stretch of the imagination require the extremely high security of a supermax facility. Thus in Wisconsin’s supermax, one of the “worst of the worst” was a 16-year-old car thief. Twenty-year-old David Tracy hanged himself in a Virginia supermax; he had been sent there at age 19, with a 2 1/2 year sentence for selling drugs.

The story doesn’t stop in prison, though. While some in supermax prisons serve life sentences to completion, and others commit suicide, the overwhelming majority of these prisoners are released back into society. In fact, 95 percent of supermax prisoners eventually are released. This reality means that everyday Americans should care about what happens in supermax prisons.

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Laura Sullivan, a correspondent for NPR, described the conditions that supermax prisoners face. They are kept in concrete cells with steel chairs. Outside of one 15-minute phone call per month, inmates are denied virtually any human interaction with fellow prisoners or the guards. Buttons controlled by security guards allow individual prisoners to move, to shower, or to go “outside.” However, “outside” for these prisoners is a large concrete garage where the sun is allowed to shine only through steel bars.

These kinds of conditions are inhumane. There is strong evidence that solitary confinement is a form of psychological torture. Social isolation can drive people mad, a fact that has been recognized for decades. This environment isn’t conducive to genuine rehabilitation, which is borne out in the numbers. Prisoners who were released from supermax prisons have similar recidivism rates compared with those who were more traditionally imprisoned.

This means that not only do some prisoners lose their minds in supermax prisons, the prisoners who are released intact aren’t deterred from committing more offenses. Studies show no demonstrable positive effect on recidivism; in fact, in some cases, supermax inmates have a higher chance of returning to crime. For the prisoners who go through the supermax system on their way to eventual release, the system isn’t working.

The supermax prisons were designed to limit violence and isolate the nation’s most dangerous criminals. In this limited capacity, there may be some room for supermax facilities in America, especially when dealing with notorious criminals such as El Chapo, the Unabomber, and the Boston Marathon bomber, who are housed in the federal supermax in Colorado. However, supermax facilities are increasingly being used as overflow facilities for lower-level criminals. Thus, most supermax facilities are overly costly, are needlessly degrading, and don’t work for the vast majority of prisoners. It’s time to finally put an end to many of them.

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