Glossary: Supermax Prison

A prisoner in solitary confinement. Alabama, 1979, by Sean Kernan. Image courtesy of seankernan.com.

A prisoner in solitary confinement. Alabama, 1979, by Sean Kernan. Image courtesy of seankernan.com.

Human rights activists as well as the legal community consider that supermax confinement constitutes torture under international law and cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution mandates humane prisons and the Eighth Amendment prohibits against punishment that is “incompatible with ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” or “involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.”

As per the National Institute of Corrections, “A supermax is a stand-alone unit or part of another facility and is designated for violent or disruptive inmates. It typically involves up to 23-hour-per-day, single-cell confinement for an indefinite period of time. Inmates in supermax housing have minimal contact with staff and other inmates.”

Senator John McCain experienced five years of solitary confinement during the Vietnam War and he equates it to the most severe form of mistreatment a human being can experience. Supermax confinement has long been considered an ineffective and inefficient method of punishment and prison abolitionists compare the contemporary prison system in the United States to slavery;

“where folks in prison are uncompensated for their labor or paid pennies a day. Prison populations are largely composed of people of color, and African-Americans are disproportionately imprisoned compared to other racial groups. In this fashion, the prison abolition movement is a continuation of the movement to abolish slavery.”

The website supermaxed.com is an informational and educational website about super max prisons; it includes longitudinal studies as well as articles discussing such things as solitude as a form of torture and the ineffectiveness of this type of confinement in U.S. prisons.

by Joanne Bermudez

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1 Comment

  1. Sarah

     /  October 8, 2014

    Thank you for bringing attention to this horrifying issue. I think solitary confinement absolutely torture. I looked throughe the super-maxed.com site your article recommended. The site links to a three-part series on supermax prisons from NPR. It’s a little outdated, but still very informative. What especially struck me is the psychological impact of solitary confinement. One detainee explained “A lot of guys go [crazy], really, and sometimes I ask myself, ‘Am I losing it, right? … It breaks you psychologically, right? People do develop phobias. You start thinking people are talking about you when they’re not.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5582144). How anyone can make the case that this isn’t cruel and unusual punishment is unbelievable to me. On the positive side, I do think that the widely-watched television show, Orange is the New Black, brings a lot of attention to prison abuse problems. One episode in particular, where the protagonist is in solitary confinement, is particularly jarring. Especially because it is based on her true experiences. Popular culture can have a profound impact — hopefully it will lead to social justice in these prisons!

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