Term Paper: Super Max Prisons

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Capital Punishment

Supermax Prisons

Supermax is short for super-maximum security. Supermax prisons are places intended to house violent prisoners or prisoners who might threaten the security of the guards or other prisoners. Some prisons that are not intended as supermax prisons have control units in which circumstances are similar. The theory is that solitary confinement and sensory deprivation will bring about behavior alteration (What is a Supermax prison, n.d.).

Characteristics of Prisons

Supermax prisoners are housed in small cells for approximately 23 hours out of every day. They have almost no contact with other people. There are no group activities, no work, no educational chances, no eating together, no sports, no getting together with other people for religious services, and no attempts at rehabilitation. They are not given contact visits. Prisoners are kept behind a plexi-glass window. Phone calls and visitation privileges are severely limited. Books and magazines may be denied and pens restricted under certain circumstances. TV and radios may be forbidden or, if allowed, are controlled by guards and not prisoners (What is a Supermax prison, n.d.).

Prisoners have very little or no personal privacy at all. Guards watch the inmates' actions by way of video cameras. Communication between prisoners and the control booth officers is mostly done by way of speakers and microphones. An officer at a control center may be able to monitor cells and corridors and control all doors by electronic means. Typically, the cells have no windows. Lights are restricted by guards who may leave them on night and day. For exercise there is typically only a room with high concrete walls and a chin-up bar. Showers may be restricted to three per week for not more than ten minutes (What is a Supermax prison, n.d.).

Some sources suggest the main rationale is to protect other inmates and staff. How this protection takes place is unclear. The rotten apple theory suggests that removing the most violent inmates helps avert other inmates from committing assaults and infractions. An alternative dispute is that supermax prisons debilitate the worst inmates, preventing them from injuring others. According to this outlook, there is no rotten apple effect per se. Rather, any overall decrease in prison violence results completely from incapacitating the most violent and serious offenders. The most common goals of supermax prisons are summarized in the following table:

Table 1 Goals and intended impacts associated with supermax prison goals

Increase prison safety

• Fewer murders of staff and prisoners

• Fewer assaults on staff and prisoners

• Fewer riots

• Less concern and fear among inmates and staff about threats to personal safety

Increase system wide prison order and control of prisoners

• Greater compliance with rules by prisoners

• Greater and more consistent fulfillment of daily routines and obligations by prisoners

• Fewer disruptions and outbursts

• Fewer lockdowns in general population prisons

• Fewer use of force incidents by staff

• Fewer warning shots fired by staff

Improve supermax prisoners' behavior

• More successful reintegration of supermax inmates into other prisons and society

• Greater rule compliance following release from supermax prison

• Less violence following release from supermax prison

• Fewer returns to supermax prisons

Reduce the influence of gangs

• Less gang involvement

• Less intimidation by gang members of fellow prisoners

• Less drug trafficking

Punish violent and disruptive prisoners

• Increase level of punishment for violent and disruptive inmates

• Increase perceived level of punishment among violent and disruptive inmates

Increase public safety

• Fewer escape attempts

• Fewer successful escapes

• Lower recidivism rates among supermax and general population prisoners

• Less crime

• Less fear of crime among residents

Improve operational efficiencies

• Reduce delays for prisoners awaiting placement into some type of segregation

• Reduce costs by operating fewer segregation cells and blocks in different facilities

• Reduce staff time devoted to transporting prisoners from facility to facility

Source: (Mears & Watson, 2006)

Impacts associated with Supermax Prisons

There are many potential impacts of prisons that are intended or unintended and that can be positive or negative. For instance, supermax prisons may advance the ability of general population prison wardens to control prisoners. They also may permit prisons to better manage intensive inmate population while yielding efficiencies both within the new facilities and in general inmate prisons. But they also may have no impact on general prison conditions, and operational conditions within supermax prisons may decrease family visitation, the capability to provide educational and vocational services to supermax inmates due to frequent lockdowns or induce or aggravate mental disorders. Such impacts in turn may impede the ability of supermax parolees to transition successfully back into society. "In addition, for supermax officers, there may be higher rates of stress, which might result in increased sick leave, medical care for injuries, decreased work performance, and decreased inmate safety due to understaffing" (What is a Supermax prison, n.d.).

There is evidence that suggests that supermax prisons contribute to unintended effects, such as escalating mental illness among supermax inmates and disorder in general population facilities. For example, in a study done by Briggs et al. (2003) an interrupted time-series analysis was used to look at changes in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults, respectively, in four states. The authors found that the opening of supermax prisons had no effect on, and may have increased, system wide violence, except in one state where a sustained decline in inmate-on-staff assaults occurred. Whether such effects are actually caused by supermaxes is unknown. The concern, however, is that collectively they may offset the benefits of supermaxes. On the other hand, there may be positive unintended effects that would help bolster the case for these prisons and that thus should be included in any balanced assessment (Mears & Watson, 2006).

Supermax prisons have many unintended consequences. Supermax prisons have been portrayed as improving staff success by increasing the quantity and quality of staff training, teamwork and professionalism, and as creating better working conditions for staff, which, in turn, adds to reduced staff burnout and turnover. Prison officials and wardens often note that supermax prisons augment inmate morale and insights among inmates that prison authority is genuine. Supermax prisons also allegedly make it easier to distribute programming to general population inmates. There are also effects that fall exterior of the correctional system. For instance, supermax prisons boost public perceptions of well-being, improve the correctional system's association with local communities, advance local economies, and, more commonly, intensify the status of the correctional system among correctional agencies in other states (Mears, 2005).

Life in a maximum-security prison is an excruciating experience that influences inmates' behavior and psychological well-being. In addition to restricting inmates' behavior and autonomy, incarceration punishes them emotionally and psychologically through what is known as the pains of imprisonment. "These include the feelings of deprivation and frustration caused by the (a) loss of liberty, (b) loss of autonomy, (c) lack of heterosexual relationships, (d) deprivation of goods and services, and (e) lack of personal security and safety. Inmates in supermax facilities suffer these pains in addition to almost complete isolation, although personal security and safety may be greater for inmates in supermax facilities than for those in general populations because they do not have contact with other inmates. The addition of isolation, however, suggests that the pains of imprisonment in supermax facilities are more severe than those in maximum-security prisons. Consequently, any negative emotional or psychological reactions to imprisonment should be greater in supermax facilities than in lower security facilities" (Pizarro & Stenius, 2004).

Prevalence of Supermax Prisons

In 1984 there was only one prison in the United States that would now be called a supermax prison. In 1999, by various counts and various definitions, between thirty and thirty-four states had supermax prisons or units, with more building apace (Supermax Housing: A Survey of Current Practice, 1997). In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people (Tapley, 2010). In some jurisdictions supermax facilities or units house only those inmates who cannot be controlled in traditional segregation or administrative confinement conditions. Others are, essentially, an extension or expansion of traditional segregation or administrative confinement and may house either or both protective custody and disciplinary segregation inmates (Supermax Housing: A Survey of Current Practice, 1997).

Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons

Supermax prisons fundamentally comprise a policy intended at achieving a set of goals. Thus, as with efforts to assess any policy, a clear statement of these goals is necessary. Knowing how goals are attained also is essential, as it permits for determining whether the policy is likely accountable for changes in any observed outcomes, and adjusting those features of the policy that might lead to even better improvements in the outcomes. Correspondingly, to arrive at a fair and balanced evaluation, all unintentional impacts, both positive and negative, have to be recognized and measured. This information can be used to produce more realistic and appropriate measurements of the cost effectiveness of the policy. At the same time, it can be supportive to know… [END OF PREVIEW]

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