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Supermax Prisons in the Consciousness of Prisoners

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 88 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2008 Pages: 169-176
Kenneth E. Hartman
Date Published
March 2008
8 pages
The author of this article, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for killing a man in a drunken fistfight at the age of 19, argues that Pelican Bay, California's supermax (maximum-security) prison, has created a new breed of hard-core prisoner who has gained the status among prisoners/offenders of having survived the worst that the prison system can bring against them; he recommends including prisoners in designing and implementing more effective programs.
Pelican Bay tests men to the limits of their physical, but mostly their mental survival, as it isolates in segregated housing those inmates deemed the worst-of-the-worst. They are removed from all opportunities and experiences to develop and express the best of what it means to be human. What Pelican Bay has achieved is the creation of an upper class of degraded humanity. Instead of isolating the most negative elements of the prison population, the supermax has elevated their status and extended their reach as role models for toughness among inmates who aspire to be the toughest of the tough. There are alternatives to the control/restraint model of corrections. Restorative, rehabilitative programs--which build the qualities of mercy, accountability, and responsibility for healing the harms done to others--have proven they work because they appeal to what is best in humans. Prisoners can themselves provide input into programs that reach into their world of criminal behavior forged out of abuse, victimization, and the absence of alternatives to predatory survival. In order to prevent another series of ill-fated "reforms" based in failed punitive regimes, prisoners must be included in designing and implementing the programs that can lift them out of, rather that force them deeper into, rage and violence. 4 references