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Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, by Sharon Shalev (Willan Publishing, September 2009). 346 pages, $39.95

Book review by Julie Etter

Without exaggeration, Sharon Shalev's examination of supermax prisons and the dynamics of solitary confinement in the United States illustrates the consequences of bureaucratic dictates on the human soul. While not concealing her own moral judgment as to the practice of solitary confinement, Shalev evenly approaches this topic by reproducing, and helping the reader navigate, the theories and mechanisms employed in supermax facilities.

Divided into nine chapters, Supermax shares the terrifying, all-consuming reality of solitary confinement through multiple lenses. Following the first chapter's brief introduction to the purpose of the text, Chapter 2 traces the history of solitary confinement in the U.S. – from the early Quaker "silent" cells meant for self-reflection to today's steel and concrete behemoths.

Chapter 3 examines factors contributing to the modern rise of supermax prisons, with specific reference to California's prison guard union and the political context of solitary confinement. Chapter 4 is largely an expansion on the previous chapter, though with greater emphasis on the ideology and propaganda used to justify the use of solitary.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine, respectively, the "bureaucratization of control" with a focus on classification and a prisoner's existence within the supermax system, and the "technology of control" with photos and specific descriptions as to how control units function. Shalev's examination of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's classification and debriefing processes is stark. She notes that "more elaborate [classification] systems based on 'objective,' detailed, measurable criteria and laden with procedural requirements make classification decisions more difficult to challenge in the courts ... [and] reflect the lack of concern for the personal attributes and needs of the individual prisoner and a preoccupation with risk management."

The "objectification" of classification policies, according to Shalev, arises purely out of prison officials' response to litigation and efforts to avoid future litigation, rather than humane or ethical goals or purposes. Interestingly, Shalev likens the "debriefing" process for suspected gang members placed in solitary "to brainwashing techniques used in communist Russia and China with political dissenters, where, following a period of isolation, the prisoner 'was forced to prove his sincerity by making irrevocable behavioural commitments, such as denouncing and implicating his friends and relatives in his own newly recognized crimes. Once he had done this, he became further alienated from his former self, even in his own eyes.'"

Chapters 7 and 8 delve into the daily routines of the people within a supermax, and feature extensive first-hand comments from prisoners and employees about their perceptions of life in an isolation unit. Finally, Shalev wraps up the text in the final chapter with an examination of the effectiveness of supermax confinement in achieving its goals – needless to say, her conclusions are damning.

While Supermax is a book meant to reveal the purpose, function, justification and details of solitary confinement, which it does quite well, it also provides the reader with important context for understanding the culture of corrections workers, from guards to prison architects.

In highlighting the remoteness of solitary confinement and the inherent abusive nature of supermax facilities, which are not subject to any sort of public scrutiny, Shalev offers some important academic analysis pertaining to the "code of silence" among prison employees. She also frequently cites the findings in Madrid v. Gomez, a lawsuit involving California's Pelican Bay supermax, where the federal district court noted, among other things, "evidence pertaining to the SHU's significance [in reducing state-wide prison violence] is inconclusive." Useful texts and cases are listed in an extensive bibliography at the end of the book.

Supermax is valuable for its academic and well-researched examination of prisons based on the solitary confinement model. It caters to a wide audience, both enabling people who have never experienced solitary to feel the life-long claustrophobia that must haunt prisoners who spend years or even decades in supermax facilities, and offering scholars and litigants important insights that might help forge future policy changes. The urgency of reforming, if not abolishing, our carceral system's reliance on supermax prisons and solitary confinement cannot be overstated.

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