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March 29, 2005

Supreme Court indirectly considers supermax prison

SCOTUSblog has a helpful account here of Wilkinson v. Austin, the case to be argued in the Supreme Court tomorrow which concerns what sort of hearing process is required before an inmate can be transferred to a "supermax" facility.  Additional background on this case, with some helpful links, is available here from the Medill School of Journalism Supreme Court site.

I believe Austin presents the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to examine the most extreme form of imprisonment that our society has devised, although the legal issue in the case does not have the Court directly confronting the nature and conditions of supermax confinement.  Nevertheless, a number of amicus briefs have been filed which highlight for the Court the extreme nature of supermax confinement, and it seems possible that the Court might be influenced by these realities.

A website with resources on supermax prison facilities, entitled Supermaxed and linked here, highlights many of the common criticisms of this form of imprisonment.  A Human Rights Watch paper from February 2000, available here, provides additional background on supermax facilities.

UPDATE:  This AP story provides additional background on Austin.

March 29, 2005 at 10:56 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 29, 2005 9:37:22 PM


The existence and use of Supermax facilities makes me ashamed to be an American. How can an average citizen effectively let these strong opinions be known, and who cares that is in a position to act?

Posted by: Jeannie | Mar 29, 2005 12:22:04 PM

The more max the better, if you ask me.

I wish more people knew what criminals are capable of. I'm a police academy recruit and we have seen some very hairy videos about what prisoners do to each other and to corrections officers. We've watched videos of prisoners training each other to stab cops in the neck with a pen. People actually have sympathy for these animals? What about the families of fallen corrections officers? Does anybody have sympathy for the innocent victims of these monsters? Or are we too "enlightened" to punish and cage our criminals?

Posted by: Phil Aldridge | Mar 29, 2005 2:33:11 PM

Phil, while your sentiments are understandable, one must also understand that these "monsters" are people too. Once we have decided (and I think we have) that we are a civilized nation, then there are things that we just do not do.

I visit prisons all the time as part of my job and I fully understand the dangers faced by corrections officers. However, a stated goal of prisons is rehabilitation and rehabilitation cannot be achieved by treating people as monsters.

There is a difference between imprisonment and caging. I would argue that imprisonment itself is harsh and while I am not advocating for lounges and DirecTV in prisons, it is paramount that we treat our citizens with a certain dignity that should be afforded all human beings regardless of what they have done. Supermaxes, in a lot of states, do not provide that.

If you follow the link provided above to prisonexp.org, you'll see the effect that a simulated supermax had on "prisoners" in just 6 days. Imagine spending the rest of your life in solitary. Getting rid of supermaxes might not be the answer, but running them in more diginified ways might be. It certainly is a tough call - there are so many conflicting interests at play. But at the very least, let's maintain a modicum of dignity and decency.

Let's also not kid ourselves that correctional officers are saints. They too have a limited role in provoking inmates and treating them in dehumanizing ways, perhaps for their own safety. The thinning of the herd, as it were.

Just to be clear, I am a public defender.

Posted by: Three Generations | Mar 29, 2005 9:18:37 PM


Frankly, it scares me that you work in law enforcement and it scares me even more that you work as a recruiter because attitudes like yours are at the root of the problems in our criminal justice system.

Posted by: Laura | Mar 29, 2005 9:41:54 PM

i can't believe you said that, Phil.
Shame on you!
I'm the mother of a 22 year old who was sentenced to 15 years for drug conspiracy ...and he was "plea-bargained" into that by an AUSA who told him that if he didn't plead guilty and opted for a trial, he would die in prison of old age. Our lawyer ($50,000 later) advised him to "plead".
btw, the charge of conspiracy stood alone - no drugs, no weapons, no cash. He's in a Florida federal prison that spends about $1.15 per day on it's inmate's food. So, more prisons isn't the answer, imho.

Posted by: mary | Mar 31, 2005 11:01:43 PM

If you have a good lightning connection and the space, this 201 meg .ram file is the BBC "expose" on USA prisons. It's worth a download:


Caution: not for the soft-hearted


Posted by: mary | Mar 31, 2005 11:19:21 PM

Lets not forget that not everyone in Supermax facilities are there for murder. Some go in "simply" because there is no room at a Min/Max facility. Therefore those who have not taken a life are now subjected to inhumane condidtions and eventually driven insane. It is not ok to torture humans and deprive people of human contact and in some cases denied a tooth brush. However I don't feel for people like Susan Smith, she can be tortured, I'd feel no sympathy. There are those who kill and those who fall to their social status and rob, or live a life of petty crime. I feel for those whose life was of petty crime and somehow ended up in Supermax where they are now robbed of dignity, sanity and descent food. Like stated earlier correctional officers are not saints!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: student | Jul 11, 2006 6:21:13 PM

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