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Maxed Out

Long a reflection of the American carceral system’s worst excesses, the supermax prison serves no just purpose and must cease to exist.

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The jail where I regularly work as a public defender is located a hundred yards off Interstate 95, one of the busiest roads in the country. And yet for all its proximity, my husband, who passed it every day on his way to school as a child, had no idea it was there. Isolated in rural areas of the country, invisible behind imposing walls, or otherwise avoided because it is easier to look away, jails and prisons can seem divorced from the rest of society — at least to people who have never lived in one or loved someone who did. But that impression is wrong. Since their modern inception, prisons have been a sharp reflection of contemporary society and capitalism. As Winston Churchill is believed to have said, “Show me your prisons and I shall say in which society you live.” 

Today, the apotheosis of our prison system is the super-maximum security prison. What, then, do these prisons say about us? And what, exactly, is super about them?

America loves the word super. Sometimes, the term connotes a sense of scale, as in superhighways or superspreaders. Other times, it signals a supposed potency, as in Superman, superfoods, or a superstorm. Of course, it also reflects that American fixation with exceptionalism, like the Super Bowl or superpower. But we have also called so many products super that the word now tinges whatever it describes with a shade of sham. And deep down, we know this. Many Super Bowls turn out to be pretty mediocre displays of football, or so I’m told. Today’s superheroes are flawed — more Dark Knight or Wolverine than Man of Steel. And America’s so-called superpower is slipping through our fingers as I write.  

The supermax prison is “super” in each of these respects. The government prefers a sanitized definition, like the one offered by the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency, which defines the supermax as “a freestanding facility, or a distinct unit within a freestanding facility, that provides for the management and secure control of inmates who have been officially designated as exhibiting violent or seriously disruptive behavior while incarcerated.” But this definition is too clinical for these truly grim places. The typical connotations of super are far more apt: scale, potency, American exceptionalism, and sham.

Let’s start with the scale of these institutions. They range from small units within other correctional facilities to large, freestanding complexes housing hundreds or sometimes thousands of prisoners. As of 2004, unfortunately the latest count, 44 states and the federal system had supermax prisons, and an estimated 25,000 people, at one point, were held in such a facility.

Supermax prisons are also exceptionally potent in that they are exceptionally cruel. For one, solitary confinement is a key attribute. People are housed alone in cells typically smaller than a parking spot for people with disabilities or a small bathroom. The walls are cinderblock and “marked throughout by a dull sameness in design and color,” as a federal court once described it. They are enclosed by a heavy metal door with a slot for a food tray to be passed through. The cells are lit with fluorescent lights, which commonly stay on all day and night. Sometimes there is a window. Sometimes not. And sensory deprivation is not only limited to vision: tasteless “mealloafs” are at times served as punishment. But despite the divestiture of sight, taste, and, of course, touch, people report that sounds in a supermax overwhelm. Metal doors clank. Meal carts rattle. Shouted conversations echo between cells. Screams of anguish reverberate.

Inhabitants are confined to their cells for at least 23 hours a day. The hour outside is usually reserved for exercise in a pen surrounded by cement walls that obstruct any view of the outside world. There is little rehabilitative programming or education. As one person who has experienced solitary said, “There’s no way to keep your mind going in here.” Unsurprisingly, as recently as 2013, a United Nations Special Rapporteur more or less equated such isolation with torture

And this is not a temporary condition. Assignment to a supermax facility is indefinite, with a standard term of two years.

The effects of these conditions are predictably horrible. In one researcher’s interviews of solitary inhabitants, the words that came up repeatedly were “broken,” “insanity,” “lost,” “closing of mind,” and “living death.” This picture is borne out by the research done on supermax. Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist from Harvard University Medical School, identified “a discreet syndrome” in people housed in “special housing units,” or SHUs — the system’s preferred euphemism for supermax. This syndrome can lead to hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual distortions, illusions, and hallucinations; panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory, sometimes leading to acute, psychotic, confusional states; intrusive obsessional thoughts; overt paranoia; and problems with impulse control, which can lead to random violence or self-mutilation. Keep in mind this mental torture is being inflicted on people who are already disproportionately unwell. In a Colorado study, people with certain mental health issues at the time they entered prison had a greater propensity for later placement in supermax. In Washington state, a study reported 25% of supermax residents were mentally ill. 

Having already established supermax’s scale and potency, let’s turn to exceptionalism and sham. The United States is exceptional in that we lead the world in incarcerating people in these deplorable conditions, much like we’re world leaders in other forms of state brutality, like the death penalty and the number of killings by the police. And we are also now exporting the supermax model around the world to countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Australia.  

Finally, supermax prisons are, in many ways, a sham. When most people think of supermax, they think that those society deems the worst of the worst go there. That is, you might think that when the judge hands down her sentence to the mass murderer, terrorist, or child rapist, she decides that the time will be served in supermax prison as additional punishment. But supermax assignment is not a tool of justice, but rather an administrative tool. It is not judges but correctional bureaucrats who assign people to supermax — and not for anything the person did on the outside, but rather for the threat they may pose to the bureaucracy’s conception of order on the inside. These factors include things like escape risk, rule infractions, suspected gang affiliation, participation in protests, or even litigiousness. 

Fiscally, it costs two to three times more to incarcerate someone in a supermax facility than a regular institution. Taxpayers are shelling out approximately $40,000 to $65,000 per supermax assignment per year. Add to that the terrific human costs on supermax inhabitants themselves, including the social and mental anguish described above as well as increased probabilities of abuse.

What better way is there to sell something with no documented benefits than to label it super?

What are we getting in return for that payout? According to a 2006 Urban Institute report, there is scant evidence that supermaxes reduce prison violence or recidivism rates. Another study called their effectiveness as a mechanism to enhance prison safety “largely speculative.” And Ohio, Mississippi, and Colorado reduced their supermax populations by 89%, 85%, and 85%, respectively, while apparently decreasing or not affecting violence and disruption. Indeed, research confirms that solitary confinement, a central feature of supermax prisons, actually reduces public safety and community wellbeing by increasing recidivism, severing family and social bonds, and depriving people who will ultimately be released of any opportunities for self-improvement while incarcerated.

Supermaxes, nevertheless, have proliferated because politicians sold them to citizens. At the state and national level, the War on Crime and the War on Drugs created a climate in which creating the perception of being tough on crime was a political advantage. Meanwhile, at the local level, these new prisons offered job opportunities in construction and corrections to the economically depressed rural areas where they were typically built. And what better way is there to sell something with no documented benefits than to label it super?

Although prisons may seem like noneconomic institutions, they have been intertwined with capitalism since their modern inception. Supermax prisons are no exception.

The modern prison was born in the early 19th century. Before then, punishment was corporal — hangings, pillories, and the like. But with the Enlightenment emphasis on the individual came the idea that man was responsible for his place in society. Meanwhile, the American economy shifted from a handicraft-subsistence economy towards an industrial one hungry for the labor of working-class people. New modern prisons, like the famous Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania and the Auburn Prison in New York, thus diverted convicted people from the stocks into institutions designed both to save their souls and to turn them into productive workers. 

In the 20th century, the nation shifted from an economy driven by industry to one driven by consumption. In both systems, however, middle- and working-class people were valued: while in industrial capitalism their labor was an important input, in consumer capitalism, their purchasing helped drive the economy. Henry Ford famously raised worker’s wages so that his workers would boost demand for the Model T by buying the car themselves. Put simply, mass consumption required the wellbeing of the masses. 

By the last quarter of the 20th century, the economy started to fundamentally change. Globalization and automation made the labor of non-elite Americans significantly less important. Meanwhile, a shrinking middle class with stagnating wages, coupled with the concentration of wealth among the country’s elites, diminished the importance of the average consumer’s spending power. According to the Brookings Institution, between 1984 and 2014, the lowest quintile’s real expenditures declined by 4.5% and the middle quintile’s increased by just over 2%, whereas the highest quintile’s spending increased by almost 10%. In 2010, according to Moody’s, the top 5% of Americans by income accounted for 37% of all consumer outlays, whereas the bottom 80% by income accounted for only 39.5% of all consumer outlays.

I can’t say whether it was a causal or correlative relationship, but the coincidence is striking: Alongside that diminishing economic influence of  the poorer members of society, the theoretical ideal of prisons as rehabilitative was abruptly and rapidly replaced. In the 1970s, a “culture of control,” as sociologist David Garland calls it, proliferated. The culture of control stresses punitive sanctions over supposedly rehabilitative ones and sees crime and delinquency as problems not of deprivation but of inadequate controls. Supermax prisons are, in many ways, the paradigmatic institution of control. They have no intrinsic justice purpose beyond the management of people deemed unruly. They took root quickly: In 1984, only one state, Illinois, had a supermax facility. By the latest estimate, 44 states had them. 

The explosion of dehumanizing supermax prisons thus coincided with the devaluation of working class people in the free economy, but supermax prisons are not simply an echo of historical trends. They have eerily presaged more recent societal trends, specifically what Harvard Business School professor Shoshanna Zuboff calls “the age of surveillance capitalism.” 

Anthropologist Lorna Rhodes describes supermax prisons as a technology of surveillance. With features like 24/7 video monitoring or the remote operation of doors to control movement, they are elaborately designed to monitor and influence behavior. Free people have also concurrently become objects of surveillance and control in recent decades. Take, as just one example, the War on Terror and the targeting of individuals or minority groups deemed to be a threat. Or consider how many of the top staff at Abu Ghraib prison were hand-chosen from corrections systems in the states. Or how out of the same post-9/11 frenzy, the state then began spying on the whole population. In time, companies joined in for their own benefit. From Target predicting your pregnancy to Amazon monitoring its employees’ every second to Google tracking everything from your internet searches to your thermostat, we are all now under persistent, if not constant, surveillance. We thus seem to have cultivated society’s tolerance for surveillance in prison only for it to continue to spread in the free world. 

Equally disturbing is the way that people housed in supermax prisons have become resources to be mined. The interior of supermax facilities has been described as factory-like. Except, of course, it is people that are the product. Incarcerated people have increasingly become objects off which to make profits. And big profits at that. The largest private prison provider, the GEO Group, sucked up $2.48 billion in revenue in 2019 from caging people. Beyond those operating the entire prison, other private companies are making money off of services provided to those imprisoned there, like commissary, healthcare, telecommunications, or financial services. 

The free world has allowed this commodification of people in prison to continue as if the rest of us are immune from such objectification. But Professor Zuboff shows us we are not. As today’s privacy activists are fond of saying, “If the service is free, you are the product.” She takes this logic a step further: In surveillance capitalism, it’s not that we are the product; it’s that we are the mine from which companies can harvest valuable behavioral data. With that data, they can predict and influence our behavior. After all, it is far more profitable to control what we are going to do, rather than merely guess it well. Thus, in surveillance capitalism, we are increasingly subject to the same impulses of surveillance, control, and commodification that supermax prisoners have endured for the past few decades.

Prison walls thus cannot isolate these practices. Our society’s ills continue to seep into and grow out of these institutions, like the invasive kudzu vines that fringe the highways to so many rural prisons.

In his famous Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault theorized that prisons are a way of reproducing state power by creating desirable political subjects. But the alarming thing about supermax prisons, and the larger prison industrial complex from which they arose, is that they seem no longer interested in creating any kind of political subject. Rather, they are a divestment of subjecthood. A tool of exclusion, rather than inclusion. A place to park people that no longer matter. To disappear them, as Angela Y. Davis puts it. We are beginning to see this same ability to erase people in the free world — from attempts to exclude noncitizens from the census to the invisibility felt by rural communities as urbanization intensifies.

We must therefore change the dominant themes of our punishment apparatus and culture from isolation to visibility; from exclusion to inclusion; from solitary to solidarity. If not because it’s the right thing to do, we must do so because our fates are tied. And there is nothing super about supermax prisons or a society that allows them to exist.

Image: Google Earth