Supermax: Controlling Risk through Solitary Confinement

Supermax: Controlling Risk through Solitary Confinement

Supermax: Controlling Risk through Solitary Confinement

Supermax: Controlling Risk through Solitary Confinement


This book examines the rise and proliferation of 'Supermaxes', large prisons dedicated to holding prisoners in prolonged and strict solitary confinement, in the United States since the late 1980s.

Drawing on unique access to two Supermax prisons and on in-depth interviews with prison officials, prison architects, current and former prisoners, mental health professionals, penal, legal, and human rights experts, it provides a holistic view of the theory, practice and consequences of these prisons. Given the historic uses of solitary confinement, the book also traces continuities and discontinuities in its use on both sides of the Atlantic over the last two centuries.

It argues that rather than being an entirely 'new' form of imprisonment, Supermax prisons draw on principles of architecture, surveillance and control which were set out in the early 19th century but which are now enhanced by the most advanced technologies available to current day prison planners and administrators. It asks why a form of confinement which had been discredited in the past is now proposed as the best solution for dealing with 'difficult', 'dangerous' or 'disruptive' prisoners, and assesses the true costs of Supermax confinement.


I solemnly declare, that with no rewards nor honours could I
walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down
upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human
creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering
this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or
I consenting to it in the least degree. (Dickens 1842: 147)

This book concerns itself with the direct descendants of the ‘silent cells’ referred to by Charles Dickens in his excoriating essay on what was then regarded as the model prison, Philadelphia’s much praised Eastern State Penitentiary. It examines the deep and far end of the American criminal justice system as it operated at the turn of the twenty-first century, and the resurrection of solitary confinement, one of the oldest forms of incarceration, in its newest incarnation in the prison setting – supermax prisons. It asks why, almost two centuries after Dickens’ unequivocal condemnation of the practice of isolation, tens of thousands of prisoners across the USA are yet again subjected to the immense suffering caused by prolonged solitary confinement, and questions its use as a legitimate prison practice.

Solitary confinement

In contemporary Western penal systems, most prisoners will spend their sentence in ‘congregated’ or ‘general population’ prisons. That is, they will share a cell with one or two (and sometimes more) . . .

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