What is a Supermax Prison?

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A Brief History

On October 22, 1983, the Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois was the scene of a tragedy when inmates overpowered and killed 2 corrections officers in 2 separate incidents.  This terrible incident resulted in the concept of the “Supermax” prison, short for “super-maximum security” in the United States Federal prison system (Bureau of Prisons).  The idea is to provide secure housing for the “worst of the worst,” prisoners that are either so dangerous, represent such a tempting target to assassins, extreme escape risks, or ones that are a danger to national and/or international security.

Digging Deeper

The “supermax” concept can be a separate prison altogether, or a particular section of another prison.  The concept keeps the prisoner in a solitary cell for 23 hours per day, limiting contact with other prisoners and prison personnel.  As pointed out by researchers Leena Kurki and Norval Morris, there is no single definition of what a “supermax” prison has to be, as various countries and states may operate their version of the supermax according to their own unique wants and needs.  Additionally, Kurki and Morris note that such conditions are hardly suitable for maintaining the mental/emotional health of the inmates so confined.  Yet by the beginning of the 21st Century there were around 20,000 such inmates in the United States.

Such confinement is often seen as a form of punishment for unruly or uncooperative inmates, and can be used as a bargaining chip when negotiating deals with accused felons.  Little in the way of recreation, education, or reform is offered in such a prison, just secure confinement.  (Hopefully.)

While the Federal Penitentiary at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is often touted as the first supermax prison, or at least a prototype, the Federal Prison at Marion was considered the most secure facility bordering on what we call a supermax prison by 1984, due of course to the incidents in 1983.  Since then, the US has seen the establishment of dozens of such facilities, at least 57 state and federal supermax jails by the end of the 20th Century.  Since then, some states have downgraded their supermax facilities in the face of intense criticism by social reformers.  Likewise, the Federal Prison system retains only a single such facility, that being ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado.  The reputation for the dehumanizing conditions in supermax prisons evoked much protest among civil rights crusaders (our guess being, folks that A: Never worked in a prison, and B: Did not have a loved one killed or injured by a prisoner).

Due to the extreme danger from homicidal prisoners, escape artists, targets of assassination, and those that may pose a threat if allowed to communicate with the outside world, supermax prisons are built and operated at a higher level of security, both physical facilities and practices, than other jails.  The US has housed terrorists, such as “Shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and including domestic terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski as well as top drug lords in supermax conditions.  Some other notable “guests” of our remaining Federal supermax prison include Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and members of the Mafia, including hitmen.  Meanwhile, the Marion Federal Penitentiary is now a “Medium Security” facility, relinquishing its status as our first supermax prison.

Supermax prisons remain a controversial subject, with those in favor pointing to the absolute incorrigibility of the prisoners housed there and the overriding importance of protecting innocent people being more important than protecting the rights and happiness of such miscreants.  Social reformers see things otherwise and claim that as a society we must maintain a certain level of humanity regardless of the actions of the convicted.  Where do you stand on the issue of supermax prisons?

Question for students (and subscribers): Do the rights of a dangerous prisoner supersede the rights of the public to be safe from that prisoner?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bruton, James. The Big House: Life Inside a Supermax Security Prison. Voyageur Press, 2004.

Shalev, Sharon. Supermax.  Routledge, 2009.

Spalding, Maddie. Guarding Supermax Prisons (Highly Guarded Places). Childs World Inc, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by the Federal Bureau of Prisons/Agencia Federales de Prisiones of the United States Penitentiary, Marion, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.