Supermax is short for super-maximum security. Supermax prisons are places intended to house violent prisoners or prisoners who might threaten the security 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 modification (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 confinement, in which a prisoner is cut off from almost all human communication and contact for an extended period of time, is a practice that is almost exclusive to the United States.
While many challenge the benefits of solitary confinement, others argue that it is necessary 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 privileges are severely limited. Books and magazines may be denied and pens restricted 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.
Typically, 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 suggest 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 avert other inmates from committing assaults and infractions. An alternative dispute is that supermax prisons debilitate the worst inmates, preventing them from injuring others. According to this outlook, there is no rotten apple effect per se.
Rather, any overall decrease in prison violence results completely from incapacitating the most violent and serious offenders. There are many potential impacts of prisons that are intended or unintended and that can be positive or negative. For example, supermax prisons may advance the ability of general population prison wardens to control prisoners (Mears ; Watson). They also may permit prisons to better manage intensive inmate population while yielding efficiencies both within the new facilities and in general inmate prisons. But they also may have no impact on general prison conditions, and operational conditions within supermax prisons may decrease family visitation, the capability to provide educational and vocational services to supermax inmates due to frequent lockdowns or induce or aggravate mental disorders (Mears). Such impacts 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 evidence that proposes that supermax prisons contribute to unintentional effects, such as intensifying mental illness among supermax inmates and disorder in general population facilities. For example, 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 increased, 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 concern, however, is that collectively they may offset the benefits of supermaxes. On the other hand, there may be positive unintended 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).