Outside Looking In: Supermax

12 05 2011

We are not monsters
We’re moral people
And yet we have
the strength to do this. – Shriekback, “Nemesis”

Sooner or later, any discussion about prisons must turn to the subject of “Supermax”. Intended to be the crowning achievement in “control unit” prisons, Supermax (super maximum security) facilities are designed to house inmates in solitary confinement and provide the absolute minimum in comfort or personal freedom. This description of a typical cell in the Florence Colorado federal prison seems to be the standard boilerplate:

Most cells’ furniture is made almost entirely out of poured concrete, including the desk, stool, and bed. Each chamber contains a toilet that shuts off if plugged, a shower that runs on a timer to prevent flooding, and a sink missing a potentially dangerous trap. Rooms may also be fitted with polished steel mirrors bolted to the wall, an electric light, a radio, and a television that shows recreational, educational and religious programming. These are considered privileges that may be taken away as punishment, so they are placed and remotely controlled such that the inmate does not actually come into contact with them. The 4 in (10 cm) by 4 ft (1.2 m) windows are designed to prevent the prisoner from knowing his specific location within the complex because he can see only the sky and roof through them. Additionally, inmates exercise in what has been described as an “empty swimming pool,” so they do not know their location for possible escape. Telecommunication with the outside world is forbidden, and food is hand-delivered by correctional officers. (Cite)

Despite any concerns about escape attempts, one inmate noted that Florence ADX was the only prison he’d ever served time in that allowed inmates to take photos of their cells. He took that as a sign that Florence has no fear of anyone trying to escape. USA Today provides a slim photo of one of the cells here.

I found it interesting that 5% or less of inmates in Florence ADX were sentenced there directly. Typically it is used as the ultimate punishment for unruly or violent prisoners short of the death penalty. Actor Woody Harrelson’s father died in Florence ADX.

“I’m unable to exercise any control over anything outside this cage,” Harrelson wrote. “I simply do my best with what I have.”

Harrelson wrote that he generally ignored his opportunity to go outside for an hour and enjoyed the simple pleasures of a shower and reading “until the wee hours.”

Detractors of the Supermax concept – or any solitary confinment, for that matter – call it cruel and unusual punishment, barred by the US constitution and cite the physical and mental damage such conditions are apt to cause. A recent article in the Kenosha Daily News cited a defendant in a murder trial as appearing in court wearing a “suicide vest” as standard protocol for anyone being held in solitary confinement. This struck me as an institutional response to a known problem, in this case confinement conditions that drove inmates to suicide attempts. I am not an expert on such matters and perhaps there is a more mundane reason for such dress. My limited research suggests that as inmates in solitary confinement may not be readily accessible unlike the bulk of the prison population withholding items or attire that could be used in a suicide attempt is a cautionary move and not one that automatically means that solitary confinement is a direct path to suicide.

(Note: A suicide vest or gown is a one-piece garment designed to not aid in being used as a would-be noose, for example. A photo of such a garment may be found here.)

He is but a single data point, but Woody Harrelson’s father did not commit suicide despite being held in solitary confinement for several years. Which, I might add, runs counter to claims that solitary confinement is intended to be temporary at Florence ADX and not the norm.

This article is not intended to be exclusively about the pros and cons of solitary confinement, but due to the nature of Supermax prisons it is necessary to touch on it here. The topic will be explored in further detail in a forthcoming installment.

As for Supermax prisons themselves, admittedly more research is required on my part but at present I view these facilities as the logical evolution of a system that has long favored confinement and control. How much rehabilitation is someone like the Unabomber receiving at Florence ADX? Is that the goal?

Or purely punishment?

And what of prisoners that do not rise to the infamy of someone like the Unabomber? Supermax prisons are found throughout the country. Florence ADX is noteworthy as the only federal prison of its type. How do Supermax prisons serve to rehabilitate such inmates? Or have they been deemed to be beyond such efforts and best removed from society under the harshest possible conditions?

More research is necessary into Supermax prisons on my part but these are but a few of the questions that I have about these facilities.

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