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Expensive, ineffective and they drive people mad - rethink of supermax prisons urgently needed urges LSE academic

Supermax prisons – large prisons designed for holding prisoners in strict and prolonged solitary confinement – officially operate to protect society from its most violent and dangerous criminals but in reality are also used to house petty non-violent offenders and the mentally ill.  

Photograph of a man in prisonThose who aren't mentally ill on entering supermax prisons often become so, some after quite short periods of time, and the mental trauma caused by the extreme conditions can lead to individuals, most of whom will be released back into the community, becoming more damaged and aggressive rather than less of a threat to society.  

These are some of the arguments made in a new book by Dr Sharon Shalev of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Supermax: controlling risk through solitary confinement calls for an urgent review of the use of solitary confinement as a prison tactic. It is the first book to offer a comprehensive examination of the supermax phenomenon.  

An estimated 25,000 prisoners in the United States are currently isolated in a supermax prison and subjected to extreme measures of control, regulation and inspection. These prisons have mushroomed across the United States since the late 1980s and can now be found in 44 states across the US, as well as in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Holland, Peru and South Africa. 

Photograph of a prison interiorSupermax prisoners typically spend 22.5-24 hours a day locked up in small, windowless cells, where they eat, sleep and spend their days isolated from human contact. They only leave their cell for one hour of solitary exercise in a barren concrete yard three times a week, and a 15 minute shower in a shower-cell four times a week. They have no access to vocational programmes, are shackled whenever they leave their cell, and are subjected to regular cell searches, which can involve the use of tear gas or other chemical agents, and dogs. Supermax prisoners may be held in these conditions indefinitely, sometimes for the duration of their natural life.

Dr Shalev said: "Supermax prisons are extreme places which brutalise both prisoners and prison staff. They are excessive, expensive, ineffective, and extremely damaging. And they don't make sense. How can it be necessary to secure prisoners behind ten layers of physical enclosures, to deny them lip balm, hair conditioner and, in one recent case, access to two of Barack Obama's books, in the interest of security?"   

One argument supporting the extreme measures is that they are necessary to control the risk posed by dangerous prisoners. But the huge number of prisoners held in supermax prisons runs in the face of this argument and the reality is that many supermax prisoners are petty non-violent offenders who have simply fallen foul of rules and regulations elsewhere in the prison estate, and the mentally ill. In California, for example, a prisoner can be placed in a supermax for "possession of $5 or more without authorisation". And rather than reducing violence, the book argues that supermax prisoners often experience increased irritability, anger and unprovoked violent outbursts. In the absence of contact with others, the violence is often turned against the individual with forms of self-harm prevalent in solitary confinement.

'The practice of solitary confinement has gained considerable media and public attention, and condemnation, in the context of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and America's "War on Terror". But less attention has been paid to the proliferation of supermax prisons in America itself' said Dr Shalev. 'The public may or may not be concerned about the mental well-being of its prisoners, but they should surely be concerned about recidivism rates and the prospects of tens of thousands of prisoners, who have lived in a world devoid of human interaction and human contact, being released from their isolation cells to life alongside others without any preparation for the transition.

'Supermax prisons are expensive, ineffective and they drive people mad. Rather than building more supermax prisons, it is time to acknowledge the failures of solitary confinement and reject its use as a legitimate prison practice in all but the most exceptional circumstances.'


Contact: Sharon Shalev at S.Shalev@lse.ac.uk   

Jess Winterstein, LSE Press Office, 020 7107 5025, j.winterstein@lse.ac.uk


Sharon Shalev is a fellow at the Mannheim Centre for Criminology and an Associate of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London.

Supermax: controlling risk through solitary confinement by Dr Sharon Shalev is published by Willan Publishing. It will be launched at LSE on Wednesday 11 November at 5.30-7pm in the Waterstone's Economists' Bookshop, Portugal Street, London WC2A 2AE. To attend, email s.shalev@lse.ac.uk

The book also explores the architectural design of a typical supermax prison, the daily routines and practices of supermax units and inquires how prison staff view the prisoners in their charge and how prisoners experience their confinement. The book concludes by assessing the costs and benefits of supermax prisons. It draws on unique access to two supermax prisons and intensive interviews with prisoners, former prisoners, prison wardens, mental health professionals and prison designers.


'This is an extraordinarily important book, full of rare insights and invaluable information. Shalev uses a well balanced blend of theory and data – including observations, interviews and official documents – to lay bare the harsh and dehumanising realities of these draconian prison environments. She manages to penetrate and deconstruct the official rhetoric that is used to justify this problematic prison form, and provides a detailed, factual analysis that is at once troubling and highly instructive. The book is extremely well written, engaging and astute. It is a must read for scholars, prison policy-makers and interested citizens alike.'
Professor Craig Haney, University of California, Santa Cruz

'Supermax prisons are hidden from sight, deep in the inner structure of the American correctional system. Using publicly available information, official documents and intensive interviews, Sharon Shalev combines theoretical skill and a fine eye for empirical detail to ask and answer all the right questions about these extraordinary (and expanding) institutions. She shows clearly how the supermax is more than a modern high-tech version of solitary confinement and much more than risk-management by 'administrative segregation'. Shalev succeeds where much literature on imprisonment fails: comparing the 'internal' technologies of control - architectural design, techniques of constant surveillance, daily routine – with the 'external' ideologies of justification. An important book.'
Stan Cohen, emeritus professor of sociology, LSE

The ''Supermax'' makes a high-technology contribution to the art of institutionalized inhumanity - offering architectural settings and regimes for physically isolating prisoners for protracted periods of time in extremely deprived circumstances, under the guise of achieving security-centered penological objectives. Sharon Shalev has provided us with a long-overdue authoritative, meticulously-researched portrait and thoughtful, scholarly analysis of this draconian innovation.'
- Professor Hans Toch, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany

19 October 2009