Supermax (short for: super-maximum security) is the name used to describe "control-unit" prisons, or units within prisons, which represent the most secure levels of custody in the prison systems of certain countries. The objective is to provide long-term, segregated housing for inmates classified as the highest security risks in the prison system—the "worst of the worst" criminals—and those who pose a threat to national and international security.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the United States government, "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," a definition confirmed by a majority of prison wardens.
Leena Kurki and Norval Morris have argued there is no absolute definition of a supermax, and that different jurisdictions classify prisons as supermax inconsistently. They identify four general features that tend to characterize supermax prisons:
- Long-term – Once transferred to a supermax prison, prisoners tend to stay there for several years or indefinitely.
- Powerful administration – Supermax administrators and Correctional Officers have ample authority to punish and manage inmates, without outside review or prisoner grievance systems.
- Solitary confinement – Supermax prisons rely heavily on intensive (and long-term) solitary confinement, which is used to isolate and punish prisoners as well as to protect them from themselves and each other. Communication with outsiders is minimal.
- No activities – Few opportunities are provided for recreation, education, substance abuse programs, or other activities generally considered healthy and rehabilitative at other prisons.
In supermax, prisoners are generally allowed out of their cells for only one hour a day (one-and-a-half hours in California state prisons); often they are kept in solitary confinement. They receive their meals through ports in the doors of their cells. When supermax inmates are allowed to exercise, this may take place in a small, enclosed area where the prisoner will exercise alone.
Prisoners are under constant surveillance, usually with closed-circuit television cameras. Cell doors are usually opaque, while the cells may be windowless. Conditions are plain, with poured concrete or metal furniture common. Cell walls, and sometimes plumbing, may be soundproofed to prevent communication between the inmates.
The United States Penitentiary Alcatraz Island, opened in 1934, has been considered a prototype and early standard for a supermax prison.
An early form of supermax-style prison unit appeared in Australia in 1975, when "Katingal" was built inside the Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney. Dubbed the "electronic zoo" by inmates, Katingal was a super-maximum security prison block with 40 prison cells having electronically operated doors, surveillance cameras, and no windows. It was closed down two years later over human rights concerns. Since then, some maximum-security prisons have gone to full lockdown as well, while others have been built and dedicated to the supermax standard.
Supermax prisons began to proliferate within the United States after 1984. Prior to 1984 only one prison in the U.S. met "supermax" standards: the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. By 1999, the United States contained at least 57 supermax facilities, spread across 30–34 states. The push for this type of prison came after two correctional officers at Marion, Merle Clutts and Robert Hoffman, were stabbed to death in two separate incidents by inmates Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain. This prompted Norman Carlson, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to call for a new type of prison to isolate uncontrollable inmates. In Carlson's view, such a prison was the only way to deal with inmates who "show absolutely no concern for human life".
The Federal Bureau of Prisons' solitary confinement units are known as Special Housing Units (SHU).
In recent years a number of U.S. states have downgraded their supermax prisons, as has been done with Wallens Ridge State Prison, a former supermax prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Other supermax prisons that have gained notoriety for their harsh conditions and attendant litigation by inmates and advocates are the former Boscobel (in Wisconsin), now named the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, Red Onion State Prison (in western Virginia, the twin to Wallens Ridge State Prison), Tamms (in Illinois), and the Ohio State Penitentiary. Placement policies at the Ohio facility were the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case (Wilkinson v. Austin) in 2005 where the Court decided that there had to be some, but only very limited, due process involved in supermax placement.
There is only one supermax prison in the United States federal system, ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado. It houses several inmates who have a history of violent behavior in other prisons, with the goal of moving them from solitary confinement for 23 hours a day to a less restrictive prison within three years. However, it is best known for housing several inmates who have been deemed either too dangerous, too high-profile or too great a national security risk for even a maximum-security prison. Residents include Theodore Kaczynski, a domestic terrorist otherwise known as the Unabomber, who once attacked via mail bombs; Robert Hanssen, an American FBI agent turned Soviet spy; Terry Nichols, an accomplice to the Oklahoma City bombing; Richard Reid, known as the "Shoe Bomber", who was jailed for life for attempting to detonate explosive materials in his shoes while on board an aircraft; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber; Richard Lee McNair, a persistent prison escapee; Charles Harrelson, a hitman who was convicted in 1979 of killing Federal Judge John H. Wood Jr.; and Vito Rizzuto, boss of the "Sixth" Mafia "Family," released on October 5, 2012. The maximum security facility in Colorado is the only federal Super Max in the United states. It is reserved for federal crimes. The Boston Marathon Bomber was housed there. Deprivation of social contact and the isolation of inmates has some unintended positive and negative effects. Inmates are safer being in isolation, and prisons create more jobs for their local communities. Super max prisons however are extremely expensive to run and can cost about three times the national average for a maximum security facility.
However, many states now have created supermax prisons, either as stand-alone facilities or as secure units within lower-security prisons. State supermax prisons include Pelican Bay in California and Tamms in Illinois. The USP in Marion, Illinois was recently downgraded to a medium-security facility. Some facilities such as California State Prison, Corcoran (COR) are hybrids incorporating a supermax partition, housing high security prisoners such as Charles Manson.
In September 2001, the Australian state of New South Wales opened a facility in the Goulburn Correctional Centre to the supermax standard. While its condition is an improvement over that of Katingal of the 1970s, this new facility is nonetheless designed on the same principle of sensory deprivation. It has been set up for 'AA' prisoners who are deemed a risk to public safety and the instruments of government and civil order, or believed to be beyond rehabilitation. Corrections Victoria in the state of Victoria also operates the Acacia and Maleuca units at Barwon Prison which serve to hold the prisoners requiring the highest security in that state including Melbourne Gangland figures such as Tony Mokbel and Carl Williams, who was murdered in the Acacia unit in 2010.
Supermax and Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisons are controversial; some claim that the living conditions in such facilities violate the United States Constitution, specifically, the Eighth Amendment's proscription against "cruel and unusual" punishments. In 1996, a United Nations team assigned to investigate torture described SHU conditions as "inhuman and degrading". A 2011 New York Bar association comprehensive study suggested that supermax prisons constitute "torture under international law" and "cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution". In 2012, a federal class action suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and officials who run ADX Florence SHU (Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Civil Action 1:12-cv-01570) alleged chronic abuse, failure to properly diagnose and neglect of prisoners who are seriously mentally ill. The suit was dismissed.
Most of these facilities only contain supermax wings or sections, with other parts of the facility under lesser security measures.
In Brazil, the "regime disciplinar diferenciado" (differentiated disciplinary regime), known by the acronym RDD, and strongly based on the Supermax standard, was created primarily to handle inmates who are considered capable of continuing to run their crime syndicate or to order criminal actions from within the prison system, when confined in normal maximum security prisons that allow contact with other inmates. Since its inception, the following prisons were prepared for the housing of RDD inmates:
Establecimiento Penitenciario de Alta y Mediana Seguridad de Girón EPAMSGIRON.
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