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Supermax Prisons: What We Know, What We Do Not Know, and Where We Are Going

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 88 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2008 Pages: 23-42
Jesenia M. Pizarro; Raymond E. Narag
Date Published
March 2008
20 pages
Based on case law and criminal justice research, this article examines the current state of knowledge on supermax prisons, which house inmates considered the "worst of the worst" under maximum-security measures, and assesses the likely future of these facilities.
The increased popularity of supermax prisons (44 States operate 1 or more supermax facilities) has been attributed to the decline in the rehabilitation ideal as a primary purpose in corrections and an increase in the ideals of punishment, incapacitation, and deterrence as the purposes of corrections. Prison administrators claim that supermax prisons are effective management tools because they serve as a general deterrent to violence and disturbance within the correctional population; however there is no objective, empirical evidence to support the view that supermax prisons are effective. A major concern of critics of supermax facilities is their effect on inmates' mental health due to the isolation and lack of activity. Only a few studies, however, have directly examined the impact of supermax prisons on the inmates. Challenges to the existence and practices of supermax prisons based on the eighth amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) stem from issues related to the mental health of inmates, the use of force, and conditions of confinement. The courts, however, have repeatedly ruled that the placement of mentally and physically fit inmates in supermax settings does not violate their right against cruel and unusual punishment. Both academic and legal literature suggest that supermax prisons are here to stay. This prediction is only likely to change if future research produces a consensus that supermax prisons are not cost-effective and do in fact have a measurable impact on inmates that rises to the level of cruel and unusual punishment. 61 references