Thinking Allowed – Supermax

Supermax prisons are on the increase the United States – these are prisons where prisoners are kept in extreme solitary confinement – sometimes for years at a time. In this podcast Criminologist Sharon Shalev provides some details some of the findings from her latest book – which draws on her access to two supermax prisons and is based on in-depth interviews with prison officials, prisoners and others.

Shalev notes that there are about 30 000 prisoners in solitary confinement in the US and 44 states have supermax prisons.

The increase in supermax is indicative of the ‘popular punitiveness’ identifitied by Criminologists such as Robert Reiner and David Garland – Shalev acknowledges that the increase was correlated with the rise of conservative (neo-liberal) power in the US in 1990s. See also my previous blog entry that summarises Richard Wilkinson’s work on how more unequal countries (like America) get more punitive.

According to Shalev, what is also interesting is how we increasingly don’t care about the negative long term effects on the mental health of these prisoners. Supermax signifies that the idea of prison is moving towards pure retribution rather than punishment. Could this also be a consequence of 30 years of neo-liberalism? – That there has been a cultural shift to a harsher ‘I don’t care’ attitude towards other people? Sociologists such as Reiner would agree with this – which is an extension of  Marxist (David Gordon) ‘dog eat dog’ theory.

I quite fancy reading her books btw – if someone buys it me for Christmas it’d be much appreciated, ta.

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5 thoughts on “Thinking Allowed – Supermax”

  1. Criminologist Sharon Shalev stated that people could be

    placed in solitary confinement for belonging to gangs.

    It was my understanding that prisons like Pelican Bay are

    totally internally organized and structured via the law of the

    gang and subsequent racial divide and to deviate from this was

    undeniably fatal. A man must align himself to a gang for his very

    life. Shelleyc.

  2. Hi, thanks for the comment – I’m sure there are some cases where the supermax solution really this the only solution given what you say above. I’m equally as sure that there are other cases where solitary confinement is misused by the authorities – I guess will never actually know how necessary supermax actually is given the problems of doing research in this area!

    I flagged up Shalev’s book because it highlighted an interesting trend in crime control – I’ve got a few more things to say on this but I need to go run the hoover round – so I’ll come back to this later!


  3. Shelly,
    You’re quite right – most prisoners do have to align themselves with a gang in order to survive in prison, which is exactly why isolating gang members in the extreme conditions of a supermax makes no sense at all. There’s also no evidence that the introduction of supermax prisons reduced overall prison violence or prison-gang activity; Certainly in California data indicates that quite the opposite happened… Both these issues are discussed in some detail in the book, Supermax: controlling risk through solitary confinement.

  4. Christmas is cold inside walls of supermax prison:
    How is Christmas inside the supermax prison 365 days of the years we are locked up, No christmas tree, prisoners kept in extreme solitary confinement and sometimes for years at Christmas day ‘we dont forget what they have done, don’t forgive, we understand they are brutal murderer,
    betrayal, terrorist, terrible people, but why do we give them not one nice day on Christmas day, I know a murderers home is inside the supermax! We celebrate Christmas time with the family, inside supermax ADX Florence ‘there is no christmas dinner, No celebrate of christmas time’!
    Why let criminals not celebrate Christmas, have durning crhistmas time a dinner and breakfast, and christmas eve enjoy together, one day in the year, Please don’t forget this, Christmas is the day people spend time with their families together, but don’t forget this, that someone has Escape from the Supermax and his deserve punishment by committed suicide. We know it was Bruce Jeffrey Pardo was dressed up like Santa Claus and with a mission to kill his ex-wife and their family was victim on christmas eve. We know Bruce Jeffrey Pardo Escape for the supermax, why not forget one day in year 365 days locked up 23 hours on day, Only on Christmas time We be good too each other!

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