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Creating Superfelons at the Supermaxes

Inmate calls type of prison facility 'the ultimate whetstone of human behavior, sharpening those who survive its rigors and deprivations to a keen edge.'
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They may not become the next Lex Luthor, Professor Moriarty or Magneto, but evidence suggests that inmates coming out of so-called "supermax" incarceration units are emerging tougher and more violent than when they went in.

Super villains, no.

Super bad guys, most likely.

"This harshness, this get-tough attitude taken to its extreme (is) backfiring on the criminal justice system and society," said Kate King of Murray State University, editor of The Prison Journal's March issue, which focuses entirely on supermax facilities. "We can't dehumanize and degrade human beings and expect them to come out, follow the rules and treat us nicely."

Supermax facilities, which exist in both federal and state prison systems, have been devised to deal primarily with the most violent convicts; those who can't exist within the general prison population (some federal supermaxes have also housed such notorious criminals as John Gotti and Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski). For the most part, this means putting the cons in special facilities where they are locked down 23 hours a day, offered no training, education or treatment, and allowed no physical contact.

In some supermaxes, a prisoner's every movement is monitored, and if rehabilitation is allowed, it occurs only through openings in cell doors.

What happens when "the worst of the worst" are put in this kind of environment? Jesenia Pizarro of Michigan State's School of Criminal Justice, who co-authored the article "Supermax Prisons: What We Know, What We Do Not Know, And Where We Are Going," says there has not been enough empirical research on the matter. But anecdotes from inmates and research on isolation in general suggests "isolating inmates creates problems. They become aggressive, and have mental health issues. What I'm hearing is this idea that once you're put into a supermax, that label starts — ‘I'm bad.' And you start believing that. Once you're labeled the worst of the worst, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Kenneth E. Hartman, a prisoner serving a life term for murder in the California State Prison in Lancaster, concurs.

In "Supermax Prisons in the Consciousness of Prisoners," an article he wrote for the special Prison Journal issue, he argues that prisoners who survive the crucible of the supermax become "an upper class of prisoners whose experience (affords) them a special status ... The supermax is the ultimate whetstone of human behavior, sharpening those who survive its rigors and deprivations to a keen edge. The only behavior it seems to actually deter is that which could result in the successful transition from prison to free society."

King said that these prisoners emerge from the supermax with "this higher status as a tough guy, and that sets a standard the others have to reach. They say, ‘Is that all you've got for me?'"

Since America's prison system moved from a rehabilitative to a punishment model years ago, this means supermax prisons aren't going anywhere. And there's certainly no public or political outcry to tone down this aggressive prison concept, or provide supermax cons with services afforded other prisoners.

Because of this, Pizarro said, people in the corrections end of the field "see (supermaxes) as more of an immediate solution; they're not thinking about what happens afterwards. In prisons you punish and manage risk. Corrections policy does not think of the future and rehabilitation."

Yet maybe they should. For if nothing else, many supermax inmates will get out eventually, and wind up on the streets. And those already involved with violent street gangs — a significant proportion of supermax inmates — will most likely continue wreaking havoc with society.

Pizarro said, however, that a certain "tipping point" has been reached, that with 3 million people incarcerated in the United States, "we are seeing some efforts to rehabilitate, in terms of prison re-entry programs."

Yet she does not wear blinders; Pizarro recognizes some kind of facility must segregate the most violent cons from the general population, but certain things need to be changed. There need to be "more due process rights, more formal rules as to who goes into the supermaxes, and don't exclude programming," she said. "Dealing with problematic inmates is an issue, but the way we're doing it now is not the best way."

Hartman, founder of an honors program in his facility that is open only to those who are drug-, gang- and violence-free, writes that a key element in all this is not the failure of rehabilitative programs but "a failure to implement them during the past two decades of ‘get tough' rhetoric."

If things don't change in the corrections world, he writes, "the supermax prison will ultimately prove to be another stick whose utility diminishes over time, that serves mostly to pull the bar of what is considered acceptable lower, and opens the system for still more failure."