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Study: Supermax Prisons Achieve Control While Inflicting Debilitating Side Effects, But Don’t Reduce Recidivism

Study: Supermax Prisons Achieve Control While Inflicting Debilitating Side Effects, But Don't Reduce Recidivism

by John E. Dannenberg

The Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute (UI) issued a research report, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons, in which it concluded that while these restrictive lockups achieve their goals of maintaining order, safety, control and incapacitation of violent/disruptive prisoners, they also cause serious debilitating side effects such as increased mental illness. But the ultimate concern of whether supermaxes serve to advance the welfare of thusly confined prisoners [by reducing recidivism] appears doubtful.

There are over 25,000 prisoners housed in supermax prisons in 44 states. While the term "supermax" doesn't usually appear in detention facility lexicons, the terms "special housing unit" (SHU), "intensive management unit" (IMU) and "administrative segregation" (Ad Seg) are familiar descriptors. But it all boils down to the familiar regimen of 23-24 hours per day in a cell, in-cell feeding (sometimes "Nutriloaf"), separate showers, isolated dog-kennel-sized "exercise yards," constant lighting, no contact visiting, and often, no human contact whatever for long periods of time. While occupants selected for supermax housing are supposedly the "worst of the worst" behavioral management problems, it is widely known that selection is not infrequently grounded upon retribution for "meddlesome" behavior such as lawsuits.

But the wished-for deterrent effect of harsh supermax confinement does not seem to correlate with reduced recidivism or improved behavior patterns. Indeed, the one acknowledged "programming" aspect of prison, education, is itself hamstrung by the debilitating effect of isolation. The study observes that there are few analyses on the impact of supermax prisons, not even cost-benefit assessments. Even which "benefit" should be measured is debated, that is, whether it should be "cost per averted crime" [a.k.a., "public safety," the stereotypical politician's angle] or "cost per reduced in-prison violent incident? [a.k.a., "systemwide safety," the prisoncrat's measure]. Recognizing the dilemma, the study focused on assisting policymakers in guiding further research on how to make these decisions.

To gain perspective, the study team visited supermax sites in Maryland, Ohio and Texas. They interviewed wardens, prison staff, and legislators, but did not interview prisoners. [Only prisoner lawsuits and summaries of prison investigations were reviewed. This writer believes that this is a serious flaw in the study?s methodology. After all, if the intended results are to ultimately somehow be measured by behavior of prisoners, it seems that their input should be at least equally considered when devising beneficent strategies.]

In Maryland, the study team found reductions in medical and mental health care/screening in their supermax (MCAC). MCAC prisoners were shortchanged on exercise time/showers (only 1 hour every two-three days). The team ruled that MCAC's "pink room? [i.e., solitary -- an empty, unheated, filthy cell with a hole in the floor] was abusive. Not surprisingly, they found that MCAC confinement increases disorder and encourages prisoners desiring protective custody to misbehave so as to stay there. And when MCAC prisoners are paroled directly to the streets, they exhibit the maximum predilection for recidivism and hence danger to the public.

In Ohio, the team found a supermax, the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) was built in response to the 1993 Lucasville riot where nine prisoners and one guard were killed. Which ignored the fact that for decades Lucasville had had its own "supermax" unit. The average stay in OSP is 2.6 years. While the punishment goal is obvious, unintended side-effects are evident, too. OSP suicides account for 15% of all Ohio prison suicides, but OSP only houses 1% of Ohio prisoners. A federal judge in 2002 prohibited placement of mentally ill prisoners in OSP. To protect the public, Ohio law prohibits prisoners being paroled directly from OSP. Which results in no parole sentences for prisoners housed there on the classification whim of prison officials. [This raises the question as to how a continually disruptive prisoner who has completed his term ever gets out. Does his OSP-aggravated behavioral deterioration transmute into a life-sentence?]

Texas leads the nation in housing segregated prisoners -- one-third of all such prisoners in the country. Their 9,000 supermax prisoners are triple the number in 1987, amounting to 8% of all Texas prisoners. In 1995, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting the expenditure of state funds to provide rehabilitative programs. As in Maryland and Ohio, serious mental-health side-effects are observed in Texas. Texas paroles 1,400 supermax prisoners directly to the streets every year, with predictable results. In prison assaults on staff have increased markedly; fully 40% occur in segregation units.

In a written national UI survey of wardens, 70% responded that recidivism was not affected by the use of supermax prisons. They admitted numerous unintended side-effects, including more incident-related paperwork. Curiously, they also admitted system-wide effects of increased violence and disrespect for authority.

In conclusion, the report found that "there is little research [including the present study] to suggest that supermax prisons effectively achieve any of a range of goals, including improving system-wide order and safety...." Or, as this writer rephrases it, treating people like animals only encourages animal behavior. See: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons, by Prof. Daniel P. Mears, Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute (March 2006).

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