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Supermax Prisons

What is Solitary Confinement?

Supermax prisons are buildings specifically designed for long term solitary isolation. Psychological research has shown that solitary confinement beyond fifteen days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that the level of psychological harm caused by solitary confinement over fifteen days rises to the level of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.  Sonny_Trujillo_Supermax_plan_for_web.jpg

In the United States there are scores of highly specialized buildings holding tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement on any given day.[1] Their housing has many names in different places, such as Security Housing Unit, Special Management Unit, Administrative Segregation, “Seg,” Lockdown, and “the Hole.” They are confined to cells typically  6’ x’ 10’ for 23 hours per day, with one hour spent in a high-wall, barren concrete outdoor “yard” only twice the size of the cell.  Almost all situations for human contact such as guard, medical or family visits are conducted through metal mesh, behind glass partitions, or in hand- and leg-cuffs. People in solitary are held on average for five years[2], and there are thousands of cases of people who have been held in solitary confinement for decades.  People are held in solitary confinement in federal and state prisons and even in local jails. We use the term “supermax” to refer to prison or jail buildings, or portions of buildings, intended for long term solitary confinement.

Rationales for Solitary Confinement

The reasons given for placing people in solitary vary: for “disciplinary reasons” such as breaking prison rules, or for “administrative reasons” such as interrupting ostensible gang communications, protecting other prisoners, or to separate the prisoner from others who would threaten him or her. Many prison officials state that solitary confinement is used sparingly and reserved for “the worst of the worst.” This is simply not true. Many if not most people in solitary confinement suffered from mental illness prior to their placement in solitary[3]; responding to their disruptive behavior is not only a failure of the prison mental health systems to provide minimally required care, but also exacerbates their conditions and typically leads to even worse problems. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that placing mentally ill individuals in solitary confinement is a constitutional violation, but the practice is still widespread as most mentally ill prisoners cannot effectively seek court relief.  (Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has refused to rule it unconstitutional to keep someone in solitary confinement who has become mentally ill due to that experience, which happens frequently.) Outside of mental illness, many disciplinary cases sent to solitary are for no good reason. In New York State, for example, individuals have been punished with solitary time for infractions including improper disposal of chewing gum, keeping more than the allowed quantity of postage stamps in their personal property, or failing to end a conversation when ordered by a prison guard.[4]

The claim that solitary confinement breaks up gangs is also false. Among California’s thousands of alleged gang members in solitary are many who were identified because of possession of specific books (including many well know ones, such as George Jackson’s prison memoir Soledad Brother, often assigned in literature classes) or the testimony of other alleged gang members. Yet California’s alleged gang members are only allowed out of solitary if they “debrief,” or name other gang members. For someone falsely accused, their only options are to stay in solitary or throw out names, filling their slot in solitary with another falsely accused individual[5]. Prison gangs also exist because of the failure of prison authorities to maintain an atmosphere where individuals are safe – people form groups for their own protection in this security vacuum. Many prison administrators then appreciate the divisions gangs create amongst prisoners, which make it possible to maintain control over a large population of prisoners with a small group of guards. As the scholar of prison architecture William Nagel noted, “In the outside society, unity and a sense of community contribute to personal growth. In the society of prisoners, unity and community must be discouraged lest the many overwhelm the few.”[6]

Ending Design of Solitary Confinement

Whatever the rationale advanced for solitary confinement, ADPSR does not believe that any reason is acceptable for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. As prison authorities currently hold shockingly broad authority over prison conditions (no one is actually sentenced to solitary confinement: conditions of confinement are determined within the prison system after sentencing), they also have the responsibility to manage their facilities without engaging in human rights abuses. At least six U.S. states do not use long term solitary confinement; the other states and the Federal government should follow suit.  When Mississippi closed its supermax prison, rates of violence dropped 70% in the rest of the prison system[7]. ADPSR believes that by ending the design of spaces specifically intended for long term solitary confinement, AIA and the architectural profession can help our governments to implement these necessary reforms.

[1] Wikipedia maintains a partial listing of supermax facilities at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermax_Prison#Prisons_with_supermax_facilities. Also see: Alexandra Naday, Joshua D. Freilich and Jeff Mellow, The Elusive Data on Supermax Confinement:The Prison Journal 2008; 88; 69, http://tpj.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/88/1/69

[2] NPR: In U.S. Prisons, Thousands Spend Years in Isolation, by Laura Sullivan, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5582144

[3] In Arizona, at least 25% of people in SHU are mentally ill:AFSC, Lifetime Lockdown, p. 9; in Wisconsin at least 55%: http://mostlywater.org/locking_down_mentally_ill_solitary_confinement_cells_have_become_america%E2%80%99s_new_asylums

[4] NYCLU: “Boxed In”: http://www.boxedinny.org/

[5] AFSC, “Buried Alive,” 2008: https://afsc.org/document/buried-alive-long-term-isolation-california-youth-and-adult-prisons

[6] William Nagel, The New Red Barn: A Critical Look at the Modern American Prison, The American Foundation, New York, NY: 1973, p. 139

[7] John Buntin, Exodus: How America’s Reddest State --- And its Most Notorious Prison --- Became a Model of

Corrections Reform, 23 GOVERNING 20, 27 (2010)


drawing: courtesy Sonny Trujillo, D-09285, Pelican Bay State Prison. Used with permission.