An article by Sharon Shalev in the latest issue of the UK’s New Humanist magazine, provides one of the best descriptions we’ve seen of the contours of daily life inside an American supermax prison. Shalev, a fellow at the London School of Economics, is author of the book Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement and of a Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement. Her piece begins by describing a visit to a supermax:
To enter you must pass through several gates and a highly sensitive metal detector. Once you finally get to the windowless, bunker-like prison building you need to walk through seemingly endless CCTV-monitored corridors and numerous electronically controlled gates – each gate needs to lock behind you before the next one opens – before you even make it to the cell-block. You are then made to wear a protective vest and eye goggles, warned not to get too close to the cell gates and reminded that the prisoners confined there are extremely dangerous individuals.
The appearance of the prison, security arrangements, stories of extreme violence and the accompanying props (goggles, protective vest, and combat uniforms worn by guards) immediately place a barrier, physical as well as psychological, between yourself and the prisoners confined behind the thick metal doors.
If visiting a supermax is unpleasant, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to live in one. Prisoners in a typical supermax will spend their days confined alone in a windowless seven-square-foot cell which contains only a concrete slab and a thin mattress for a bed, a small table and stool made of tamperproof materials, and a metal combo unit of a wash basin and an unscreened toilet, located at the cell front within full sight of prison guards.
Prisoners are confined to their cells for 22 and a half to 24 hours a day. They will only leave it for an hour’s solitary exercise in a barren concrete yard or for a 15-minute shower on alternate days. Technology and design allow for these two activities to take place with a flick of a switch and without direct staff contact. Food, medication, post and any other provisions will be delivered to them through a hatch in their cell door, with little communication or time-wasting.
The regime of relentless solitary confinement and tight prisoner control in a typical supermax is made possible by prison architects. Without their professional knowledge and careful calculation and assessment of every design detail, it would not have been possible to hold hundreds of prisoners in complete isolation from each other within a single, relatively small, building for prolonged periods.
And it is this extreme functionality, calculated to design out human contact and enable maximum prisoner isolation and control, that makes supermax prisons so chilling. As one senior supermax officer put it, “Do we have an obligation to take care of them? Yes. But do I have an obligation to provide him touching, feeling contact with another human being? I would say no. He has earned his way to [supermax] and he’s earned just the opposite. He’s earned the need for me to keep him apart from other people.”
The article, which deserves to be read in full, goes on to describe the “control of every aspect of prisoners’ daily lives,” and to challenge the reasoning behind the creation and growth of supermax confinement. Such conditions, she argues, “can only serve to dehumanise and debase prisoners, and cannot be said to be founded in necessary or legitimate security considerations. Supermax prisons are a highly excessive administrative response to exaggerated perceptions of dangerousness. They are about power, retribution and reinforcing perceptions of the dangerous other.”