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Read From Jail Redesign to Prison Redesign in Ch. 10 of Justice Administration: Police, Courts, and Corrections Management. 
Write a paper in which you address the Questions for Discussion following the reading.Introduction
The organization and operation of prisons, jails, and probation and parole functions in our society are
largely unknown and misunderstood. Indeed, most of what the public “knows” about the inner workings
of these organizations is obtained through Hollywood’s eyes and depictions—The Shawshank
Redemption, The Green Mile, The Longest Yard, Escape from Alcatraz, and Cool Hand Luke are a few
examples of such popular depictions that are frequently shown on the big screen and on television.
Unfortunately, however, because the movie industry is more concerned with box office sales than with
depicting reality, liberties are taken and the portrayal of prisons in film can be inaccurate. Furthermore,
although problems certainly can and do arise in correctional institutions, movies often accentuate and
exaggerate their negative aspects; therefore, it should be remembered that the reality of prison
operations, and prison life for that matter, is often at considerable variance with what is projected on the
big screen. For example, among individuals who have not been incarcerated, there is an exaggerated fear
of being raped in jails or prisons. In reality, only 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and
3.2 percent of jail inmates reported some form of sexual victimization in a recent survey. While each case
is certainly unacceptable in its own right, the degree of fear among the general public does not match the
actual risk.1
This chapter begins by demonstrating that corrections is a booming industry in terms of both
expenditures and employment, although correctional populations have been declining over the past few
years. We examine some reasons for the decline, then focus on correctional agencies as organizations,
including their mission and a view of the statewide central offices overseeing prison systems and their
related functions as well as individual prisons. Next is a discussion of supermax prisons, including their
unique method of operation, alleged effects on inmates, constitutionality, and implications for
corrections policy. Following this is a consideration of selected constitutional and civil rights that federal
courts and Congress have granted to jail and prison inmates; then we review prison litigation generally,
including the rationale and impact of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
Next, we examine local jails, including their organization, the unique structure and function of podular
direct supervision jails, and, after briefly considering the accreditation of corrections facilities, we review
probation and parole organizations, to include the organizational structure, arming, and peace officer
status of adult and juvenile probation and parole agencies and their officers. The chapter concludes with
review questions and exercises in the Deliberate and Decide, Learn by Doing, and Case Study sections.
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Correctional Organizations
Employment and Expenditures
Today, prisons and jails at the federal, state, and local levels employ about 785,000 people (one-third of
them at the local level and about 60 percent for state governments), and cost about $36 billion in annual
payrolls.2 This figure excludes another $5.4 billion in annual prison costs arising from such expenditures
as retiree health care, employee benefits, and taxes; capital costs; underfunded employee pensions; and
health and hospital care for the prison population.3 For just the federal system (which is barely a fraction
of the population of the state system), it costs taxpayers $31,977.65 per year, or an average of $87.61 per
day to incarcerate offenders.4
Declining Prison Populations: Reasons and Some Caveats
As shown in Table 10-1 , U.S. prisons now hold about 1,465,200 adult prisoners—a number that has
been generally declining since 2010. The same can be said for the entire correctional population (which
includes both the incarcerated and those on community supervision). In fact, when examining the entire
correctional population, 680,000 fewer offenders were under the correctional net in 2018 versus 2010.
Also note that the parole population has generally increased, while the jail population has remained
relatively flat since 2010.5
Table 10-1 Prison Populations in the United States
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2017–2018 (August 2020).
Table 10-1 Full Alternative Text 
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Why a decline in prison populations? According to experts, the hard-nosed, punitive crime policies that
began in the early 1980s—which included mass incarceration of nonviolent drug addicts, mandatory
sentencing laws, and stiff sentences for repeat offenders, all of which brought a prison construction
boom—are now being relaxed in many states. Some argue that declaring “war” on social issues now
amounts to little more than a shout in the crowded public sphere. This initially may have worked for the
Drug War: Individuals were asked to sacrifice some measure of privacy and judicial forgiveness in the
battle to get drugs off the streets and keep our kids safe. However, the secondary consequences of this
militaristic approach are now understood to be ineffective in preventing cycles of crime.6 Indeed, as we
will see in a later chapter, marijuana is being increasingly decriminalized, and stiff sentences for repeat
offenders that were in effect in a number of states are being eased. Another telling development is that a
total of 23 states plus Washington, DC, have now abolished the death penalty. In addition, three other
states (California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania) have governor-mandated moratoriums on the death
penalty.7 Why this philosophical shift? Certainly dwindling public resources are a major reason: It costs
all units of government about $80 billion per year to house close to 2.2 million inmates in their jails and
prisons. Also, experts increasingly see the fundamental question of fairness being raised; as David
Kennedy of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice put it, the movement to ease mandatory
minimum sentences and to reduce the use of solitary confinement is a result of “the basic recognition
that the application of power without justice is brutal.”8 Not surprisingly, then, there is even a measure of
growing public support for alternative sanctions for drug offenders. In a survey in Florida, slightly over
half of the respondents (51.1%) agreed that drug treatment is needed to best fight the war on drugs.9
Even some conservative politicians are admitting that the extreme punishment policies of the past
several decades have largely failed. And this philosophical shift is literally paying off for the states. Since
2011, New York has closed 24 of its 93 adult and juvenile corrections facilities (thus saving about
$221 million per year), and 16 other states have either closed or proposed prison closings of their own in
a bid to slice about 30,000 beds.10 And California voters in 2014 passed Proposition 47, which reduced
some possession charges and other nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, allowing prison
inmates to petition a reduction in their sentences.11 See Exhibit 10.1  for a description of further
reductions to California’s prison system.
Exhibit 10.1
As California Goes, so Goes the Nation . . .
It would probably not be inaccurate to say “As California goes, so too goes the
nation” with respect to U.S. prison populations. In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme
Court (in Brown v. Plata) upheld a lower court ruling mandating that within 2 years
the state reduce its prison population to alleviate overcrowding (built to house
approximately 85,000 inmates, at that time the prison system housed nearly
twice that number, approximately 156,000 inmates).12 Known as the Public
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Safety Realignment (PSR) policy, this approach “realigned” almost 30,000
inmates—some of whom were kept in county jails, others paroled, and still others
put on probation. The policy pertained to those inmates who were convicted of
nonviolent, nonserious, and non–sex-related crimes.13
Another problem is that today’s former prison inmates are less likely to have
participated in prison rehabilitation and work programs, which also militates
against their succeeding in the free world. At least a part of this lack of
involvement in programming may be due to Robert Martinson’s well-publicized
finding of the mid-1970s that “almost nothing works”14 in correctional treatment
programs, which served to ignite a firestorm of debate that has lasted more than
two decades.15 Legislators and corrections administrators became unwilling to
fund treatment programs from dwindling budgets, and academics such as Paul
Louis and Jerry Sparger noted that “perhaps the most lasting effect of the
‘nothing works’ philosophy is the spread of cynicism and hopelessness” among
prison administrators and staff members.16
Interestingly, despite the mass decarceration in California due to the Supreme
Court ruling and the ensuing legislation noted above, two recent studies suggest
that it has not had a negative effect on California’s crime rates, as some had
feared.17 Only automobile thefts in California increased in 2012, followed by
another slight increase in 2013, then no increase by 2014. And in terms of violent
crime, prisoner realignment was associated with a decrease from 2013 to
2014.18 However, more recent evidence suggests a 12 percent increase in
violent crimes in California between 2014 and 2017 (versus only a 3 percent
increase, on average, for the other 49 states).19
General Mission and Features
Correctional organizations are complex hybrid organizations that utilize two distinct yet related
management subsystems to achieve their goals: One is concerned primarily with managing correctional
employees, and the other is concerned primarily with delivering correctional services to a designated
offender population. The correctional organization, therefore, employs one group of people (correctional
personnel) to work with and control another group (offenders).
The mission of corrections agencies has changed little over time. It is as follows: to protect citizens from
crime by safely and securely handling criminal offenders while providing offenders some opportunities
for self-improvement and increasing the chance that they will become productive and law-abiding
citizens (see Exhibit 10.2 ).20
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Exhibit 10.2
Prison Missions: A Comparative Analysis
While the idea would certainly be unpopular with some American voters, the fact
is that Swedish and other Scandinavian prisons have lower rates of recidivism—
in part because they focus on treatment of criminogenic issues for each inmate.
It would be foolish to suggest that these lower crime levels are due solely to the
increased role of treatment in correctional facilities, but it would be equally
foolish to think that the findings do not have any relation to fundamental
philosophical differences. Justice leadership is slowly realizing that solely
focusing on punishment and incarceration of offenders ultimately does very little
to stop the cycle of crime.21
Finland, like the United States, dealt with an increase in illegal drug use in the
late 1980s into the 1990s. However, Finland did not respond in nearly the same
fashion as the United States. Instead of focusing on harsh punishments and
punitive sanctions, the ultimate goal in Finnish courts and corrections is to
decrease recidivism, even if this involves a degree of what is called “penal
welfarism.”22 Compare penal welfarism in Finland, for example, with the mission
of the Michigan Department of Corrections: “We create a safer Michigan by
holding offenders accountable while promoting their success.”23 The goal of
rehabilitation is not mentioned in the Michigan mission but is implied in its vision.
An interesting feature of the correctional organization is that ,every correctional employee who exercises
legal authority over offenders is a supervisor, even if the person is the lowest-ranking member in the
agency or institution. Another feature of the correctional organization is that—as with the police—
everything a correctional supervisor does may have civil or criminal ramifications, both for themselves
and for the agency or institution. Therefore, the legal and ethical responsibility for the correctional (and
police) supervisor is greater than it is for supervisors in other types of organizations.
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Prisons as Organizations
As noted earlier in this chapter, the mission of most prisons is to provide a safe and secure environment
for staff and inmates, as well as programs for offenders that can assist them after release.24 This
section describes how prisons are organized to accomplish this mission. First, we examine the larger
picture—the typical organization of the central office within the state government that oversees all
prisons within its jurisdiction. Then, we review the characteristic organization of an individual prison.
Approximately 83 percent of the 1,600 U.S. prison facilities are owned and operated by the states (not
California recently rebranded its state corrections division with the name “California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation.”
The Central Office
The state’s central organization that oversees its prison system is often called the central office . Some
of the personnel and functions typically found in a central office are discussed in the following
subsections. Note that in these subsections, we discuss some general characteristics of central offices.
To find more specific information about a particular state’s corrections department, use the following link:
central office
the state’s central organization that oversees its prison system.
Office of the Director
Each state normally has a central department of corrections that is headed by a director (or someone
with a similar title); in turn, the director appoints a person to direct the operation of all the prisons in the
state. The prison director  sets policy for all wardens (discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 11 ) and
prisons in terms of how the institutions should be managed and inmates cared for (with regard to both
custody and treatment). In addition to the director, the staff within the office of the director typically
includes public or media affairs coordinators, legislative liaisons, legal advisers, and internal affairs
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prison director
the person who sets policy for all wardens and prisons to follow in terms of
management and inmate treatment.
As they are one of the largest state agencies, a tremendous demand for public information is made on
correctional agencies. If a policy issue or a major incident is involved, the media will contact the director
for a response. The office of public affairs also oversees the preparation of standard reports, such as an
annual review of the department and its status or information on a high-profile program or project. In
addition, because state correctional agencies use a large percentage of the state budget, the legislature is
always interested in their operations. Therefore, there is usually within the department of corrections an
office of legislative affairs, which responds to legislative requests and tries to build support for resources
and programs.26
Legal divisions, typically comprised of four to six attorneys, often report to the director as well. The work
of the legal division includes responding to inmate lawsuits, reviewing policy for its legal impact, and
offering general advice regarding the implementation of programs in terms of past legal decisions. These
attorneys will predict how the courts are likely to respond to a new program in light of legal precedents.
Finally, the director’s office usually has an inspector or internal affairs division. Ethics in government is a
major priority; corrections staff may be enticed to bring contraband into a prison or may be physically
abusive to inmates. Whenever a complaint of staff misconduct is made by anyone, the allegation needs
to be investigated.
Administrative Division
Two major areas of the administrative division of a corrections central office are budget
development/auditing and new prison construction. The administrative division collects information
from all of the state’s prisons, other divisions, and the governor’s office to create a budget that represents
ongoing operations and desired programs and growth. Once it is approved by the governor’s office, this
division begins to explain the budget to the legislative budget committee, which reviews the request and
makes a recommendation for funding to the full legislature. After a budget is approved, this division
maintains accountability of funds and oversees the design and construction of new and renovated
Correctional Programs Division
A central office will usually have a division that oversees the operation of correctional programs, such as
security, education, religious services, mental health, and unit management. It is clear that
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Offenders enter prison with a variety of deficits. Some are socially or morally inept, others are intellectually or
vocationally handicapped, some have emotional hangups that stem from psychological problems, still others have
a mixture of varying proportions of some or even all of these.28
Having to deal with inmates suffering from such serious and varied problems is a daunting task for
correctional organizations. Prison culture makes the environment inhospitable to programs designed to
rehabilitate or reform.
A major contemporary problem among persons entering prison is drug addiction. To put this into
perspective, a recent report from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) indicated that
more than 60 percent of those in jails and prisons met the medical standards for addiction.29 Drugaddicted offenders are subjected to one of three types of treatment programming that attempt to address
the problem: punitive (largely involving withdrawal and punishment), medical (consisting of
detoxification, rebuilding physical health, counseling, and social services), and the communal approach
(using group encounters and seminars conducted by former addicts who serve as positive role
models).30 Chapter 12  discusses what prison administrators can do to interdict drugs coming into
prisons and the kinds of treatment programs that are maintained in them.
Medical or Health Care Division
One of the most complicated and expensive functions within a prison is health care. As a result, this
division develops policy, performs quality assurance, and looks for ways to make health care more
efficient for inmates and less expensive for the prison. One of the best outcomes for a corrections health
care program involved HIV/AIDS. A widespread epidemic of HIV/AIDS cases was initially feared in
prisons (through homosexual acts and prior drug use) but such an outbreak never happened. Today, the
problem persists, with about 17,150 prison inmates having HIV or AIDS at year-end 2015, but the
estimated cases have declined an estimated 9,300 cases between 1998 and 2015.31
Human Resource Management Division
The usual personnel functions of recruitment, hiring, training, evaluation, and retirement are
accomplished in the human resource management division. Affirmative action and labor relations
(discussed in Chapter 14 ) may also be included. Workplace diversity is important for corrections
agencies, particularly with the growing number of Black and Hispanic inmates. Most states have a
unionized workforce, and negotiating and managing labor issues are time-consuming; therefore, this
division has staff with expertise in labor relations.
It’s important to note that states differ in terms of the organization of their central offices (Exhibit 10.3 ).
In one midwestern state, for example, its budget and operations administration are housed together
within the central office. In addition, many states’ central offices also have research and planning units,
training units, probation and parole services, prison industries division, and emergency response teams.
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Exhibit 10.3
An Example of the Structure of a State
Department of Corrections: Minnesota32
The vision of the Minnesota Department of Corrections is to achieve justice
through the “promotion of racial equity, restoration from harm, and community
connectedness.” Its mission is to transform lives for a safer Minnesota. The
department is headed by a commissioner, with a number of other personnel in its
government and external relations office, communications office, legal office,
and finance. An assistant commissioner supervises the research, planning, and
organizational performance measurement unit. Five assistant and deputy
commissioners oversee other aspects of the department, including the following:
(1) the organizational and regulatory services unit (including human resources,
information technology, and employee development); (2) facility safety and
security unit (including facility wardens, transport, and property management);
(3) health, recovery, and programs unit (including education, medical, dental, and
mental health); (4) person-centered program planning unit (including facility case
management, capacity management, and specialized release); and (5)
reintegration and restorative services unit (including reentry, grants, and field
Figure 10-1  shows an example of the organizational structure of a central office in a state of 3 million
Figure 10-1
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Example of an Organizational Structure for a Correctional Central Office
Figure 10-1 Full Alternative Text 
Individual Prisons
Over time, prison organizational structure (see Figure 10-2 ) has changed considerably to respond to
external needs. Until the beginning of the 20th century, prisons were administered by state boards of
charities, boards comprised of citizens, boards of inspectors, state prison commissions, or individual
prison keepers. Most prisons were individual provinces; wardens who were given absolute control over
their domain were appointed by governors through a system of political patronage. Individuals were
attracted to the position of warden because it carried many fringe benefits, such as a lavish residence,
unlimited inmate servants, food and supplies from institutional farms and warehouses, furnishings, and
a personal automobile. These days most wardens or superintendents are civil service employees who
have earned their position through seniority and merit.33
Figure 10-2
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Example of an Organizational Structure for a Maximum-Security Prison
Figure 10-2 Full Alternative Text 
Attached to the warden’s office are (possibly by some other title) an institutional services inspector and
the institutional investigator who deal with inmate complaints against staff. As mentioned in the earlier
section on central office, prisons also need personnel who deal with labor contracts and the media, and
who collect and provide this information to the central office. A computer services manager maintains
the management information systems.
Also reporting to the warden are deputy or associate wardens, each of whom supervises a department
within the prison. The deputy warden for operations will normally oversee correctional security, unit
management, the inmate disciplinary committee, and recreation. This is typically the largest unit in terms
of number of employees, as approximately 66 percent of all correctional employees are in the role of
correctional officer, line staff, or supervisors in direct contact with inmates.34 The deputy warden for
special services will typically be responsible for functions that are more treatment oriented, including the
library, mental health services, drug and alcohol recovery services, education, prison job assignments,
religious services, and prison industries. Note that a large percentage of federal and state correctional
facilities provide inmate work programs (88%), educational programs (85%), and counseling programs
(92%).35 Finally, the deputy warden for administration will manage the business office, prison
maintenance, laundry, food service, medical services, prison farms, and the issuance of clothing.36
It is important to note that custody and treatment are not either-or in correctional organizations; rather,
they are complementary. Although custody overshadows treatment in terms of operational priorities—
treatment programs are unable to flourish if security is weak and staff and inmates work and live in
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chronic fear and danger—prisons without programming options for offenders are simply warehouses that
are vulnerable to violence, disruption, and the continuation of criminally deviant behavior. Correctional
staff, regardless of their job function, does not support such volatile conditions. Most often, the
overriding concern in a prison or jail is and should be security. Security must be maintained so that
programs can be implemented. Programs are generally supported by staff, especially those that address
inmate deficiencies such as lack of education and job skills as well as substance abuse. Keep in mind
that according to a recent report, only a low percentage of offenders actually receive treatment: Just
11 percent of all jail and prison inmates receive the proper level of treatment prescribed by the
judiciary.37 Prison administrators must decide which programs they will allow to be introduced into their
facility; this is not often an easy task, especially when much of the public perceives that programs only
“coddle” inmates.38
Next, we discuss several related aspects—correctional security, unit management, education, and penal
industries—in more detail.
The correctional security department supervises all of the security activities within a prison,
including any special housing units, inmate transportation, and the inmate disciplinary process.
Security staff wear military-style uniforms, a captain normally runs each 8-hour shift, lieutenants
often are responsible for an area of the prison, and sergeants oversee the rank-and-file correctional
staff. Missteps by this department, in particular, can have dire consequences for officer and prisoner
safety and institutional integrity, such as recently when a group of inmates at a Delaware maximumsecurity prison took several officers hostage and engaged in a standoff with police that lasted
several hours.39
The unit management concept originated in the federal prison system in the 1970s and now is used
in nearly every state to control prisons by providing a “small, self-contained, inmate living and staff
office area that operates semiautonomously within the larger institution.”40 The purpose of unit
management is twofold: to decentralize the administration of the prison and to enhance
communication among staff and between staff and inmates. Unit management breaks the prison
into more manageable sections based on housing assignments; assignment of staff to a particular
unit; and staff authority to make decisions, manage the unit, and deal directly with inmates. Units are
usually comprised of 200 to 300 inmates; not only are staff assigned to units but their offices are
also located in the housing area, making them more accessible to inmates and better able to monitor
inmate activities and behavior. Directly reporting to the unit manager are case managers, or social
workers, who develop the program of work and rehabilitation for each inmate and write progress
reports for parole authorities, inmate classifications (discussed in Chapter 12 ), or inmate transfers
to another prison. Correctional counselors also work with inmates in the units on daily issues, such
as finding a prison job, working with their prison finances, and creating a visiting and telephone
The education department operates the academic teaching, vocational training, library services, and
sometimes recreation programs for inmates. An education department is managed similarly to a
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conventional elementary or high school, with certified teachers for all subjects that are required by
the state department of education or are part of the General Education Degree (GED) test. In federal
and state prisons, 90 percent of facilities offer formal educational programs, the most common of
which is a secondary education or a GED program.42 Vocational training can include carpentry,
landscaping or horticulture, food service, and office skills.
Prison industries  also exist—programs intended to provide productive work and skill development
opportunities for offenders, to reduce recidivism and prepare offenders for reentry into society.43 They
are typically legislatively chartered as separate government corporations and report directly to the warden
because there is often a requirement that the industry be self-supporting or operate from funds generated
from the sale of products. Generally, no tax dollars are used to run the programs, and there is strict
accountability of funds.
prison industries
prison programs intended to provide productive work and skill development
opportunities for offenders, to reduce recidivism and prepare offenders for reentry
into society.
Correctional administrators report that joint ventures provide meaningful, productive employment that
helps to reduce inmate idleness and supplies companies with a readily available and dependable source
of labor, as well as the partial return to society of inmate earnings to pay state and federal taxes, offset
incarceration costs, contribute to the support of inmates’ families, and compensate victims.
Several different types of business relationships exist—the personnel model, the employer model, and the
customer model. In the personnel model, prisoners are employed by the state division of correctional
industries, which in turn charges the companies a fixed rate for their labor. In the employer model, the
company employs the inmates, and private companies own and operate their prison-based businesses,
with prison officials providing the space in which the companies operate as well as a qualified labor pool
from which the companies hire employees. In the customer model, the company contracts with the prison
to provide a finished product at an agreed-on price. The correctional institution owns and operates the
business that employs the inmates. These joint ventures provide challenges and problems: absenteeism
and rapid turnover of employees, limited opportunities for training, and logistical concerns. Still, many
inmates who participate in these programs show up for their jobs on time, work hard during their shifts,
and have been hired by companies after their release.44 In a National Institute of Justice study, offenders
who worked in the employer model were able to obtain employment after release more quickly and had
lower recidivism rates than those in other prison industry models.45 A typical prison industry
organizational structure is presented in Figure 10-3 .
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Figure 10-3
Organizational Structure for a Prison Industry
Source: Seiter, Richard P., Correctional Administration: Integrating Theory and Practice, 1st ed., © 2002, p. 199. Reprinted and
Electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Figure 10-3 Full Alternative Text 
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The Controversy of Supermax
Definition and Operation
Supermax prisons  or their equivalent exist in more than 40 U.S. states; these institutions provide the
most secure levels of custody in prisons, with long-term, segregated housing for inmates who represent
the highest security risks.46 Their method of operations and, as will be seen, the degree of controversy
about them among academics and others warrant additional discussion about them specifically.
supermax prison
institutions providing the most secure levels of custody in prisons, with long-term,
segregated housing for inmates who represent the highest security risks.
To understand what supermax prisons are and how they operate, let’s use the Administrative Maximum
prison, or ADX, located in Florence, Colorado, as an example. ADX is the only federal supermax prison in
the country (the others are state prisons). It is home to a Who’s Who of criminals: “Unabomber” Ted
Kaczynski; “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid; Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center attack;
“Oklahoma City Bomber” Terry Nichols; “Olympic Park Bomber” Eric Rudolph; “Boston Marathon Bomber”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; and most recently Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s drug kingpin. ADX is known
as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”; 95 percent of its prisoners are the most violent, disruptive, and escapeprone inmates from other federal prisons. Upon viewing its external aspect for the first time, one
immediately sees that this is not the usual prison: Large cables are strung above the basketball courts
and track; they are helicopter deterrents.47
The supermax prison is known variously in different states as a special management unit, security
housing unit (SHU), high-security unit, intensive management unit, or special control unit; its operations
are quite different inside as well. In a recent study, 95 percent of state wardens agreed that the defining
characteristics of supermax are the following: (1) the supermax is a stand-alone facility or part of
another facility designated for violent or disruptive inmates; (2) supermax facilities typically adhere to a
23-hour-per-day, single-cell confinement regimen for an indefinite period; and (3) supermax inmates have
little contact with other inmates or staff.48 In addition, inmates are generally denied access to vocational
or educational training programs. See Exhibit 10.4 .49
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Exhibit 10.4
Mimicking Supermax in Lower-Security
While only a small number of supermax facilities exist in the country, lowersecurity institutions are mimicking some of the distinctive features of supermax
facilities. Communication management units, or CMUs, severely restrict inmates’
ability to communicate with the outside world. Rather than two calls per week
(the normal standard), inmates may be restricted to only three 15-minute calls
per month, with calls being able to be cut down to as little as 3 minutes at the
discretion of the warden. Furthermore, while all inmate mail is screened for
contraband, those in CMUs typically have their mail opened, read, analyzed, and
independently evaluated before it is sent or received, which causes delays. The
sole exception is for correspondence with lawyers and the courts.50
Effects on Inmates
While research indicates a high degree of public support for supermax prisons,51 since their early
existence and given their nature of confinement, researchers have been interested in determining the
effects of supermax prisons on inmates—specifically, whether or not their treatment is cruel and
inhumane. Given the high degree of isolation and lack of activities, a major concern voiced by critics of
supermax facilities is their social pathology and potential effect on inmates’ mental health. Although
there is very little research to date concerning the effects of supermax prison confinement,52 some
authors point to previous isolation research showing that greater levels of deprivation lead to
psychological, emotional, and physical problems: as inmates face greater restrictions and social
deprivations, their level of social withdrawal increases; limiting human contact, autonomy, goods, or
services is detrimental to inmates’ health and rehabilitative prognoses, and tends to result in depression,
hostility, severe anger, sleep disturbances, and anxiety. Women living in a high-security unit have been
found to experience claustrophobia, chronic rage reactions, depression, hallucinatory symptoms,
withdrawal, and apathy.53 In addition, increased mental illness is a very real danger to inmates in
supermax facilities.54
In a recent essay, Travis Dusenbury describes his 10-year stint at the ADX Florence. Dusenbury explains
that at the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” inmates are unable to see virtually any semblance of
nature. Supermax cells are solid concrete and induce, in Dusenbury’s opinion, a measure of
claustrophobia that can result in eventual insomnia. In fact, Dusenbury claims that his insomnia lasted
his entire 10-year stint at the ADX. When Dusenbury was not in his cell, he was in a recreation cage for an
hour a day. To communicate with a neighbor in the cell below him, Dusenbury would take a toilet paper
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roll and blow water down a sink or shower drain, just far enough so that the pipes between him and his
neighbor were clear. He could then speak through the toilet paper roll.55
Because of the relatively recent origin of supermax prisons, their constitutionality—whether or not the
conditions of confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment (i.e., that the punishment either
inflicts unnecessary or wanton pain or is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime)—has been
tested in only a few cases. Not surprisingly, most of these challenges assess the harms done by extreme
social isolation. The first, Madrid v. Gomez,56 in 1995, addressed conditions of confinement in
California’s Pelican Bay Special Housing Unit (SHU). The judge pointed to the “stark sterility and
unremitting monotony” of the interior of the prison and noted that its image was “hauntingly similar to
that of caged felines pacing in a zoo” (p. 1229; however, the judge concluded that he lacked any
constitutional basis to close the prison).
In 1999, a federal district court in Ruiz v. Johnson
examined Texas’s high-security units and concluded
that prisoners there “suffer actual psychological harm from the almost total deprivation of human
contact, personal property, and human dignity” (p. 913). This judge also opined that such units are virtual
incubators of psychoses and that long-term supermax confinement could result in mental illness.
In Jones ‘El v. Berge,58 in 2004, a federal district court in Wisconsin concluded that “extremely isolating
conditions cause SHU syndrome in relatively healthy prisoners, as well as prisoners who have never
suffered a breakdown; supermax is not appropriate for seriously mentally ill inmates.” The judge ordered
several prisoners to be removed from the supermax facility.
Finally, Cunningham v. Federal Bureau of Prisons was a class action lawsuit filed in 2012 by 12 inmates
at ADX Florence. The suit contended that the Board of Prisons (BOP) and certain personnel at the facility
failed to adhere to federal policy and the Eighth Amendment by not properly treating inmates with serious
mental illness.59 The suit requested reform at the ADX by providing appropriate mental health treatment.
In late 2016, a settlement was reached between the two parties, which remedied some of the major
contentions by the plaintiffs, including the following: (1) ADX will screen all inmates for mental illness
and ensure access to treatment; (2) ADX will improve conditions of confinement so as to reduce the risk
for mental illness or its exacerbation, including enhancing recreation programs, creating private
counseling areas, group therapy facilities; and (3) mental health units will be developed at several other
BOP locations. Because of the outcome of this case, a number of inmates with mental illnesses were
transferred out of ADX Florence.
Effects on Public Safety
Pizarro et al.60 examined whether supermax prisons, by housing the worst of the worst inmates, actually
enhance public and prison safety. This claim, Pizarro et al. argue, has not been proven; they believe that
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the potential long-term, negative effects of supermax institutions (as discussed earlier) on inmates will
contribute to future violence because the inmates begin to lose touch with reality and exhibit symptoms
of psychiatric decomposition. Consequently, they believe that supermax prisons potentially endanger
society, beyond regular imprisonment. They also bemoan that although most supermax inmates will one
day return to society or to the general prison population, only a few supermax prisons provide inmates
with a transitional program (e.g., moving inmates from supermax prison into a maximum-security prison,
allowing inmates to participate in group activities, and placing inmates in institutional jobs).61 Gordon62
found similar trends in the long-term recidivism rates among former supermax inmates: The isolation
and lack of contact tend more often than not to worsen the psychological problems present in many
Policy Implications
Given the negative psychological effects of many forms of long-term supermax confinement, researchers
such as Craig Haney63 believe that there is a strong argument for limiting the use of supermax prisons:
We should take steps to ensure that all such facilities implement the best and most humane of the available
practices. Far more careful screening, monitoring, and removal policies should be implemented to ensure that
psychologically vulnerable prisoners do not end up there in the first place, and that those who deteriorate once they
are immediately identified and transferred. Strict time limits should be placed on the length of time that prisoners
are housed in supermax. [T]here are very serious psychological, correctional, legal, and even moral issues at the core
that are worthy of serious, continued debate.
What’s the future of the supermax? While many believe that supermax prisons are needed for the most
dangerous and violent inmates,64 others point to the unintended, negative consequences to inmates
noted above, including increased mental illness among inmates who spend long periods in solitary
confinement. Brutal conditions and high costs have led to the closing of some supermax prisons,
including the Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois in 2013.65 In Chapter 12 , we discuss the related
issue of solitary confinement and movements to limit its use across correctional systems in the United
States. Suffice it to say, additional research is warranted to determine whether supermax prisons can be
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