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Budget Deficits Lead to Fewer Supermax Beds

Throughout the 1990s, “Supermax” prisons and control units – commonly called Security Housing Units (SHUs) or Intensive Management Units (IMUs) – sprang up across the nation. Between 1995 and 2000 the general prison population increased by 28 percent, but according to a study by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (CSAAP), the number of prisoners held in Supermax facilities surged by 40 percent to 80,870 over the same time period.

Today, however, prison officials are beginning to realize that locking prisoners in their cells 23 hours a day comes with a heavy price – literally. Segregating prisoners is often “twice as costly,” the CSAAP study found. For example, Supermax confinement requires at least two guards to escort prisoners to activities such as showers and recreation, noted Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.

Faced with federal lawsuits challenging prison conditions, Mississippi prison officials have sharply curtailed the number of segregated prisoners from nearly 1,000 to about 150 – a significant decrease which saved the state around $6 million, according to Epps. [See related article in this issue of PLN].

Critics contend that returning Supermax prisoners to the general prison population threatens the safety of both guards and prisoners. “The departments of correction are rolling the dice with public safety,” argued Brian Dawe of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, an advocacy group for prison guards. “This is going to blow up.” Yet Mississippi has experienced no significant problems as a result of shifting prisoners out of segregation.

Other states have made similar moves with similar results. “The whole philosophy of being just tough – locking people up and throwing away the key has not solved the problem,” noted Texas state senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Texas has reduced its Supermax population from 9,343 in 2007 to 8,627 in 2010, according to state representative Jerry Madden. Illinois has also reduced its segregated prisoner population, from 2,347 to 2,266, said prison spokeswoman Sharyn Elman.

Oregon prison officials converted one of the state’s two IMUs into a unit for mentally ill prisoners – even though mental health and suicide experts consistently warn that such units cause dramatic decomposition among mentally ill prisoners. Regardless of the wisdom of Oregon’s decision, it has effectively cut that state’s available IMU beds in half, to approximately 200, for a prison population of around 15,000.

As other states deal with budget shortfalls due to the poor economy, it is likely they will also seek to cut their Supermax populations in an effort to reduce prison spending.

Sources: USA Today, Oregon DOC internal memos

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