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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Most Restrictive Alternative: The Origins, Functions, Control, and Ethical Implications of the Supermax Prison, 1976 - 2010

  • Author(s): Reiter, Keramet A.
  • Advisor(s): Zimring, Franklin E.
  • et al.

Concrete, steel, artificial light, complete technological automation, near-complete sensory deprivation, and total isolation - these are the basic conditions of supermaximum security prisons in the United States. "Supermax" prisoners remain alone twenty-three to twenty-four hours a day, under fluorescent lights that are never turned off. Meals arrive through a small slot in an automated cell door. Prisoners have little to no human contact for months, years, or even decades at a time, save brief interactions with correctional officers, who place hand, ankle, and waist cuffs on each prisoner before removing him from his cell. Prisoners only leave their cells four or five times per week, for showers or for brief, solitary exercise periods in "dog runs" - concrete pens with roofs at least partially open to natural light. In sum, supermax prisons across the United States detain thousands in long-term solitary confinement, under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. They are prisons within prisons, confining the prisoners correctional administrators deem a threat to the general prison population.

Arizona opened the first supermax, in 1986, and California opened the second, in 1989. Over the subsequent ten years, almost every state, along with the federal prison system, either built a supermax or retrofitted an existing facility to create a supermax unit. This dissertation examines the birth of the supermax in Arizona and California, and the spread of the institutional innovation across the United States. The research presented here draws on three major categories of data: archival materials, including legal decisions and case files, local news reporting, and legislative records; oral history interviews with more than thirty key informants, including correctional administrators, legal professionals, architects, and former prisoners; and quantitative data maintained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This is the first study specifically focused on unearthing the administrative and political processes that underwrote the supermax.

The dissertation begins with an overview of the idea of solitary confinement and the term "supermax," leading to a working definition of supermaxes as institutions that are: bounded in time, administratively overseen, characterized by extremely restrictive conditions, and large in both scale of beds and durations of confinement. Chapter Two uses this definition to create a working list of supermax institutions in the United States. Chapter Three frames supermaxes as a product of mass incarceration, and introduces the core region (the Sunbelt) and core case study (California) on which the dissertation will focus. Chapters Four through Six document how and why correctional administrators decided to build California's first supermax, Pelican Bay State Prison. These chapters trace how socio-political changes in the 1970s - including structural changes to sentencing laws; race-based social organizing, both in and out of prison; and increasing judicial attention to prisons - paved the way for the supermax innovation in the 1980s. Chapter Four argues that critical power shifts between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government left a power vacuum, which correctional administrators quickly filled, in part through building supermaxes. Chapter Five describes the legislative process that nominally underwrote the supermax, and argues that California legislators ceded both planning and moral authority to state correctional administrators. Chapter Six describes the processes of architectural design and technological innovation that created the physical supermaxes themselves.

Chapters Seven though Nine explore the implications of the administrative origins of the supermax. These chapters document how the institution has never had a clearly articulated purpose (Chapter Seven), and how it has been operated in contradiction to its articulated goals (Chapters Eight and Nine). Chapter Eight shows that supermaxes have detained prisoners for decades longer than intended, and have disproportionately impacted minority prisoners. Chapter Nine argues that courts have largely deferred to correctional administrators' claims about the necessity of the supermax, even though little empirical evidence exists to support these claims. Together, these chapters demonstrate that correctional bureaucrats not only made the initial supermax design decisions in California, but also progressively concentrated their power over supermax prisoners through hyper-automated buildings and internal prison classification procedures.

Chapter Ten further explores the relationship between supermaxes and the federal judiciary, arguing that federal court decisions setting minimum conditions and standards for prisons in the 1970s and 1980s shaped the supermax innovation that followed. The conformity of supermaxes to these minimum constitutional standards has rendered the institutions resistant to legal challenges. The Conclusion discusses the implications of recent supermax-related trends, including prisoner protests about conditions of confinement, and state-based movements to reduce supermax populations. In sum, because supermaxes manifest, both physically and legally, the outer limits of non-death penalty punishment policy, they are critical for understanding both U.S. prison expansion, and the impacts of U.S. tough-on-crime policies.

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