Supermax prisons have ignited controversy in academic and correctional discourse due to thenature of supermax confinement, but isolating inmates who pose safety and security risks from the general prison population to minimize institutional disturbances is not a new idea. Institutional segregation has existed for decades in most high-security prisons in the United States. At its roots, the modern supermax is a segregation unit. What makes supermax confinement different from other institutional segregation units is that it typically involves long-term placement and supermax prisons may exist as stand-alone institutions rather than one part of an existing prison.
The supermax continues an impressive trend of U.S. contributions to correctional history. Similar to other American penal innovations, such as probation and the reformatory prison, the supermax has its champions and critics. This chapter describes the rise of the supermax from its early beginnings at Alcatraz and Marion federal prisons. We critically examine justifications for supermax confinementand explore its financial and legal implications. The chapter concludes with recommendations for improving supermax policy and guiding research on this controversial practice.
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