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Purposes, Practices, and Problems of Supermax Prisons (From Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Volume 28, P 385-434, 2001, Michael Tonry, ed. -- See NCJ-192542)

NCJ Number
Date Published
40 pages

This essay provides an overview of the evolution of supermax prisons in the United States focusing on their intent, facility and program characteristics, and controversies facing the treatment, services, and cost of such facilities.


As of 1999, 34 States were providing an estimated total of 19,630 supermax beds. Supermax prisons are facilities or units designated for inmates who have been disruptive or violent while incarcerated and where their behavior is controlled only by separation, restricted movement, and limited direct access to staff and other inmates. This environment excludes routine disciplinary segregation, protective custody, and other routine purposes. Supermax prisons have at least four characteristics: (1) assignment to a supermax prison is long-term, indefinite, and possibly for the rest of the inmate's life; (2) administrative admission and transfer criteria and procedures sometimes allow wide discretion to the prison administration and not need to provide due process protection; (3) several supermaxes maintain regimes characterized by almost complete isolation and deprivation of environmental stimuli; and (4) supermaxes are characterized as having extremely limited or no programmed activities. The exclusive goals of supermaxes are related to safety and security with its main purpose to separate the most disruptive inmates. This essay raises a number of policy and research questions about supermax prisons. However, there is limited research on the operation and effects of inmates, staff, and other prisons. The essay is organized into six sections. Section I set the frame of reference to consider the evolution of the supermax prison. In Section II, a description of the regime at the Tamms supermax facility in Illinois is provided. Section III compares some of the Tamms characteristics to those observed by Human Rights Watch and Federal district court judges in other supermax prisons. In Section IV, a concentration and focus is on the mentally ill prisoners and the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement. Section V briefly discusses order maintenance in prisons, and in Section VI a summary of the supermax movement is presented. The overall thought is that the safety and security of an effective and evenhanded prison regime do not require the harsh and isolated conditions of punishment typically found in most supermax prisons. References

Date Published: January 1, 2001