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What is a Supermax Prison?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A supermax prison can refer to a prison that offers maximum-security measures or imposes the harshest standards of imprisonment on prisoners who are extremely violent offenders or potential or proven terrorists. A prison that has a section with maximum security also may be called a supermax prison or supermax unit, a shortening of the term super maximum. Such facilities, whether existing alone or within a prison, usually minimize contact between prisoners with as much as 23-hour solitary confinement per day, and a number of systems (like cell doors and locks) automated to limit contact with guards too.

Other features of a supermax prison include things like no windows, and no view into the prison, as through bars. People may eat, use the toilet and sleep in individual cells with very little contact of any kind with the outside world. While some prisons offer solitary confinement in supermax prison areas, most prisons allow people who are behaving well to work, learn skills, have regular exercise, and have access to things like prison libraries. People confined in supermax prisons, or units that are maximum security do not have these options, and some advocates for the fair treatment of prisoners suggest that the amount of sensory deprivation alone is, in and of itself, abusive and unconstitutional.

In recent years, some US prisons have tended toward downgrading rather than upgrading harsh security features, and they have converted certain prisons to medium instead of supermax standards. Yet even low security prisons may have a supermax prison unit, since the possibility of violence within the prison exists, and many believe that there must be a way in which to punish those who continue to act in violent fashion while imprisoned.

This shift in attitude may be due in part to the existence of and allegation against several supermax prisons that have been notorious in prisoner abuse, as proven in litigation by former inmates. In particular, Wallens Ridge State in Virginia and Boscobel in Wisconsin, to name just a few, had a laundry list of complaints filed by prisoners of cruel and unusual punishment due to not only their supermax nature, but also by treatment of the prisoners by security guards. Nevertheless, though federal supermax prisons aren’t as common any longer, there is a number of state supermax prisons that are in the process of being built or that have been built. Pelican Bay in California is an example of a current supermax prison.

Perhaps the existence of supermax prisons, at the same time that other prisons are lowering security measures, is best explained by opposed viewpoints about the purpose of the penitentiary system. It is noted that even in these maximum-security prisons, gangs still proliferate, but there is less ability for violent actions of a group of prisoners because they are less often in groups. Some believe though, that imprisonment should not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and that the harshness of super maximum security is exactly that. Others counter that the only way to reduce recidivism and control violence within a prison is to be certain prisoners know that violence toward others will result in extreme punishment.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon343489 — On Jul 30, 2013

@hcg201: If a prisoner is in solitary confinement, who is he going to fight with?

By hcg201 — On Jun 30, 2009

If you are in solitary confinement and get into a fight with your celle, but had told the guards prior that you and the celle didn't get along. Can they press charges on you so that you will lose your chances for parole? Also, why can you not see a counselor in that particular prison. Should an attorney be hired to help the person?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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