Supermax Prisons

Super-maximum secure or “supermax” prisons are used to hold those prisoners whom prison authorities regard as the most problematic in the prison system. These facilities merge the 19th-century practice of long-term solitary confinement with 21st-century technology in ways that subject prisoners to unparalleled levels of isolation, surveillance, and control, usually for long duration, with the potential to inflict significant amounts of psychological harm. Despite a range of academic studies documenting the serious and potentially long-lasting psychological harm it may inflict, and several judicial opinions criticizing the risks it entails and significantly limiting its use, the supermax prison form persists. This entry describes the conditions in which prisoners in supermax confinement are held, characteristics of the supermax population, effects on prisoners of supermax confinement, and the current legal status of supermax prisons.

Although different prison systems employ different terminology to refer to supermax-like conditions (e.g., “control unit,” “special management unit,” “security housing unit,” or “close management”), these units have enough distinctive features in common to be analyzed as a separate penal form. Their use has continued to increase over the past several decades, and there are now tens of thousands of prisoners in supermax-type confinement throughout the United States.

Conditions of Supermax Confinement

Conditions in supermax confinement are marked by the totality of the isolation, the intended duration of the confinement, the reasons for which it is imposed, and the technological sophistication with which it is achieved. Supermax facilities house prisoners in virtual isolation and subject them to almost complete idleness for extremely long periods of time. These prisoners rarely leave their cells and are typically given at most 1 hour a day of out-of-cell time. They eat all their meals alone in the cells, and typically, no group or social activity of any kind is permitted. In most of these units, prisoners are escorted outside their cells or beyond their housing units only after they first have been placed in restraints—chained while still inside their cells (through a food port or tray slot on the cell door)—and sometimes tethered to a leash that is held by an escort officer.

Prisoners in supermax confinement are rarely if ever in the presence of another person (including physicians and psychotherapists) without being in some form of physical restraints (e.g., ankle chains, belly or waist chains, handcuffs). They also often incur severe restrictions on the nature and amounts of personal property they may possess and have limited access to the prison library, legal materials, and canteen. Their brief periods of outdoor exercise or “yard time” typically take place in caged-in or cement-walled areas that are so constraining they are often referred to as “dog runs.” In some units, prisoners get no more than a glimpse of overhead sky or whatever terrain can be seen through the tight security screens that surround their exercise pens.

Supermax prisoners often are monitored by camera and converse with staff through intercoms rather than through more direct and routine interactions. In newer facilities, computerized locking and tracking systems allow most of their movement to be regulated with a minimum of human contact (or none at all). Some super-max units conduct visits through videoconferencing equipment rather than in person, which means that prisoners are denied immediate face-to-face interaction (let alone physical contact), even with loved ones who may have traveled great distances to see them. In addition to “video visits,” some facilities employ “telemedicine” and “telepsychiatry” procedures in which prisoners’ medical and psychological needs are addressed by staff members who “examine” and “interact” with them over television screens from locations many miles away.

As noted, supermax prisons routinely keep prisoners in this near-total isolation and restraint for extremely long periods of time. Unlike punitive segregation in which prisoners typically are isolated for relatively brief periods of time for specific disciplinary infractions, supermax prisoners may be kept under these conditions for years on end. In addition, many correctional systems impose supermax confinement as part of a long-term strategy of correctional management and control rather than as an immediate sanction for discrete rule violations.

Population of Supermax Prisons

Supermax prisons are usually justified by reference to the alleged dangerousness of the prisoners who are housed there—the “worst of the worst,” as correctional administrators often characterize them. Thus, the increased use of this distinctive prison form is linked to the contention that an especially dangerous or “new breed” of disruptive prisoner now inhabits the modern maximum security prison. In fact, there is little or no empirical support for these contentions. Instead, many prisoners appear to be placed in super-max less for what they have done than who they are judged to be (e.g., “dangerous,” “a threat,” or, especially, a member of a “disruptive” group).

In many states, a large group (sometimes the majority) of supermax prisoners has been given “indeterminate” terms, usually on the basis of having been officially labeled by prison officials as gang members. An indeterminate supermax term often means that these prisoners will serve their entire prison sentences in isolation unless they “debrief” by providing incriminating information about other alleged gang members. These practices have resulted in a significant overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in supermax prisons and what analysts have described as an “overclassification” of the prisoners who end up in these units.

In addition, the percentage of mentally ill prisoners in supermax appears to be much higher than in the general prison population. Thus, researchers estimate that approximately 30% of supermax prisoners suffer from “severe mental disorders.” This overrepresentation of the mentally ill likely results from the fact that some mentally disturbed prisoners engage in disruptive behavior that prison officials punish rather than treat. It also may indicate that supermax conditions themselves are severe enough to exacerbate and perhaps even create psychological disturbances in persons subjected to them.

Effects of Supermax Confinement

Numerous empirical studies have documented the harmful psychological consequences of living in supermax facilities. The evidence is substantial and comes from personal accounts, descriptive studies, and systematic research on solitary and supermax-type confinement conducted over a period of many decades by researchers from several different continents with diverse backgrounds and a wide range of professional expertise.

Direct studies of prison isolation have documented an extremely broad range of harmful psychological reactions, including potentially damaging symptoms and problematic behaviors such as negative attitudes and affect; insomnia, anxiety, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, ruminations, cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, loss of control, irritability, aggression; and rage, paranoia, feelings of hopelessness, lethargy, depression, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, self-mutilation, and suicidal ideation and behavior. Self-mutilation and suicide are also more prevalent in isolated prison housing—the hallmark of supermax confinement, as are deteriorating mental and physical health (beyond self-injury); other-directed violence, such as stabbings, attacks on staff, and property destruction; and collective violence. In fact, many of the negative effects of solitary confinement are analogous to the acute reactions suffered by torture and trauma victims, including posttraumatic stress disorder.

Some researchers have estimated the prevalence rates of these adverse symptoms among prisoners who are confined in supermax-type conditions. One study found that three-fourths or more of a representative sample of supermax prisoners reported suffering from ruminations or intrusive thoughts; an oversensitivity to external stimuli; irrational anger and irritability; confused thought processes; difficulties with attention and often with memory; and a tendency to withdraw socially, to become introspective, and to avoid social contact. An only slightly lower percentage of prisoners in the same study reported a constellation of symptoms that appeared to be related to developing mood or emotional disorders—concerns over emotional flatness or losing the ability to feel, swings in emotional responding, and feelings of depression or sadness that did not go away. Finally, sizable minorities of supermax prisoners reported symptoms that are typically only associated with more extreme forms of psychopathology—hallucinations, perceptual distortions, and thoughts of suicide.

In addition to these specific symptoms, many super-max prisoners undergo other kinds of significant and potentially damaging transformations during their isolated confinement. Because they are so tightly and completely controlled, they may lose the ability to initiate or to control their own behavior or to organize their personal lives. Because individual identity is socially constructed and maintained, the virtually complete loss of genuine forms of social contact and the absence of any routine and recurring opportunities to ground thoughts and feelings in a recognizable human context leads to an undermining of the sense of self. For other prisoners, total social isolation leads, paradoxically, to social withdrawal. That is, some prisoners recede even more deeply into themselves than the sheer physical isolation of supermax requires.

Legal Regulation of Supermax Prisons

Because supermax prisons are of relatively recent origin, their constitutionality—the question of whether the conditions of confinement in this new prison form represent “cruel and unusual punishment”—has been tested in only a few important legal cases. The first of these cases, Madrid v. Gomez (1995), addressed conditions of confinement in California’s Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit. Although the judge found that overall conditions in the supermax units were harsher than they needed to be, he concluded that he lacked any constitutional basis to close the prison or even to require significant modifications in many of its general conditions. Instead, he barred certain categories of prisoners from being sent there because of the tendency of the facility to literally make them mentally ill or to significantly exacerbate preexisting mental illness. However, he also emphasized that the record before him had pertained to prisoners who had been in supermax for no more than a few years and that longer-term exposure might lead to a different result. The constitutionality of supermax confinement has been tested in federal courts in several other states (notably in Texas and Wisconsin), with largely similar results—a strongly worded condemnation of the harshness of the conditions, exclusionary orders that exempted certain categories of prisoners from such confinement, but a concession that there was no legal basis to order that the supermax prisons be closed.

The legal threshold for finding conditions of confinement unconstitutional has been set especially high in the United States over the past several decades. Supermax prisons per se continue to come very close to this threshold and, in the case of mentally ill prisoners, were found to have crossed it. As the empirical record about the psychological effects of this kind of confinement continues to be augmented, and the consequences of long-term confinement in these units becomes clearer, other courts may reach different and perhaps even more sweeping conclusions about the legality of supermax.


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  2. Haney, C., & Lynch, M. (1997). Regulating prisons of the future: The psychological consequences of solitary and supermax confinement. New York University Review of Law and Social Change, 23, 477-570.
  3. King, R. (2000). The rise and rise of supermax: An American solution in search of a problem? Punishment and Society, 1, 163-186.
  4. Kurki, L., & Morris, N. (2001). The purposes, practices, and problems of supermax prisons. Crime and Justice, 28, 385-424.
  5. Madrid v. Gomez, 889 Supp. 1146 (1995). Riveland, C. (1999). Supermax prisons: Overview and general considerations. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Return to the overview of Sentencing and Incarceration in Forensic Psychology.