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The Psychological Effects of Supermax Prisons

Pg. 1 Introduction
Pg. 2 Supermaxes abroad
Pg. 3 Psychological effects

David Ward and Thomas Werlich (2003) have conducted in-depth research into the early history of supermax prisons in the United States. Their research is covered below, followed by research on the Dutch adoption of supermax prisons, and finally, the impact of psychopathic offenders serving their sentences in supermax prisons.

The main objective of the supermax penitentiary is to isolate problem-prone and escape-prone individuals from the rest of the inmates and staff. As the National Institute of Corrections defines it, the supermax prison is a "distinct facility...for inmates officially designated as exhibiting violent or seriously disruptive behavior while incarcerated", or those determined to be a threat the safety and security of others in even maximum-security facilities (National Institute of Corrections, 1997). It is an exclusively security-oriented facility where all aspects of its structure revolve around the need to keep offenders, staff, and the public safe. Supermax prisons are distinct from administrative-segregation units, the latter of which exist in almost every prison and are meant to house offenders for much shorter periods of time than supermax facilities.

This particular concept of penal isolation was first articulated in 1829 with attempts of the Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania to segregate certain criminals from the rest of the criminal population. Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary failed, however, after prisoners allegedly grew mentally sick and became insane.

Within this early attempt at "progressive" penal policy, the first form of "incentives" appeared, at this time called "Good Time" Awards.

In most forms of carceral punishment there were, and still are, two schools of thought: a) that assaultive prisoners should be as isolated as possible from one another, called "dispersal", or b) assaultive prisoners should be clumped together and only communicate with each other, called "concentration."

In 1933, the first application of the supermax trend was put forth by the Bureau of Prisons in the former military prison of Alcatraz, on Alcatraz Island. The motivation for such a development came from J. Edgar Hoover's administration, who wanted to house the most notorious prisoners all under one roof, such as John Dilliger, Al Capone, and "Machine-Gun" Kelly.

alcatraz as seen from the bay
Alcatraz, the first supermax penitentiary

Without psychologists, teachers or social workers on staff, Alcatraz never had any intention of rehabilitation, and adhered to the three-pronged ethic of incapacitating, deterring, and punishing, staples of prison philosophy that still exist to this day. It was here that the first Control Unit arose, intended to confine Alcatraz's worst behaving prisoners following disciplinary violation. The only permissible contact with the outside world was two handwritten pages of letters, sent out at maximum twice a week, and visitation with immediate family, provided it was conducted on the other side of a plate of security glass.

Alcatraz, amid a flurry of liberated ideas that the "old" and outdated system of punishment would make way for new reform, eventually closed in 1963 after 30 years of operation. In that same year, USP Marion opened. It was here that the term "corrections" staff was born, a term that encompassed psychologists, social workers, teachers, and vocational instructors as regular contributing members to the operation of the prison. Counseling was also offered, as well as literacy-development, and employment-training and development.

With the 1970s, however, a new security threat arose in US penitentiaries: violent and powerful prison gangs. Prisons themselves were becoming more violent and more difficult to manage, and in one year alone there were 450 inmates killed in prison in the US.

USP Marion thus marked a return to the old and hardened "tough" policies of punitiveness, and the re-adoption of the "concentration" model. Like Alcatraz, another Control Unit was set up in Marion. It soon became the first and only level "6" penitentiary, built for long-term segregation, and highly controlled environments for serious violent offenders.

In 1983, two officers and two inmates were murdered, striking the death toll of Marion up to 25. Following this, Marion was "locked down" indefinitely, and remains so to this day. Riot batons were issued to guards, and ankle and wrist shackling administered to offenders. During meals, inmates were now instructed to clasp their hands behind their back while their food tray was passed through their cell slot. Most personal property became prohibited, weight exercise was abolished, and strip searches, both before and after visits, became commonplace. Every newly admitted inmate received "digital rectal examinations," called "finger waves," to check for contraband. The Control Unit again emerged, accompanied by the new "Disciplinary Segregation Units." Prisoners were given only 23 hours of free time per day; concrete slabs replaced metal bed frames, and concrete shelves were installed to hold one tv, if prisoners could afford to purchase one. Visitors other than families were required to speak to inmates through bars.

In solidifying this development, the Supreme Court legally justified the conditions existing in supermax prisons like those of Marion, Illinois, and in essence, granted legitimacy to the supermax-prison era. With the decision of Bruscino v. Carlson in 1985, the judges described the conditions at Marion as "ghastly, sordid and horrible", but that the security measures were nonetheless necessary for the safety of the staff and public, providing a reasonable limitation on prisoners' constitutional rights.

Since then, supermax prisons have increased in numbers. By 1992 over 40 states in the United States were operating some form of supermax facility, and the majority of states had specialized control units in most of their state penitentiaries. Even the Netherlands, a country that prides itself on progressive imprisonment, a relative absence of riots, and low recidivism rates, built a supermax prison in 1993. Arjen Boin (2001) has done extensive research on the Dutch adoption of supermax ideology, and his work forms the basis of the findings cited below...

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