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Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement


How does it feel to spend 23 hours a day alone in a small windowless cell with almost no human contact, to communicate with family and friends through a thick glass barrier, and to endure this kind of existence for years on end?

Supermax vividly describes the daily reality of life for the tens of thousands of prisoners labelled the 'worst of the worst' in the American prison system. These prisoners are subjected to strict solitary confinement and extreme measures of control, ...

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Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement

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How does it feel to spend 23 hours a day alone in a small windowless cell with almost no human contact, to communicate with family and friends through a thick glass barrier, and to endure this kind of existence for years on end?

Supermax vividly describes the daily reality of life for the tens of thousands of prisoners labelled the 'worst of the worst' in the American prison system. These prisoners are subjected to strict solitary confinement and extreme measures of control, inspection and surveillance. This book documents how the inflexible, harsh and extreme design of supermaxes, meant to control violence, actually breeds it, whilst causing immense suffering for those within their walls.

Drawing on unique access to supermax prisons and on in-depth interviews-with prison officials, prison architects, current and former prisoners, mental health professionals, penal, legal, and human rights experts-Sharon Shalev offers a nuanced and comprehensive review of the theory, practice and consequences of these prisons. Supermax asks why solitary confinement, which had been discredited in the past, is now proposed as the solution for dealing with 'difficult', 'dangerous' or 'disruptive' prisoners, and assesses the true costs of supermax confinement.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the 2010 British Society of Criminology Book Prize

‘This is an extraordinarily important book, full of rare insights and invaluable information. Shalev uses a well balanced blend of theory and data — including observations, interviews, and official documents —to lay bare the harsh and dehumanizing realities of these draconian prison environments... The book is extremely well written, engaging, and astute. It is a must read for scholars, prison policy-makers, and interested citizens alike.’
-Professor Craig Haney, University of California, Santa Cruz

‘Sharon Shalev combines theoretical skill and a fine eye for empirical detail to ask and answer all the right questions about these extraordinary (and expanding) institutions...Shalev succeeds where much literature on imprisonment fails: comparing the "internal" technologies of control —architectural design, techniques of constant surveillance, daily routine—with the "external" ideologies of justification. An important book.’
-Professor Stanley Cohen, Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics

‘The "Supermax" makes a high-technology contribution to the art of institutionalized inhumanity —offering architectural settings and regimes for physically isolating prisoners for protracted periods of time in extremely deprived circumstances, under the guise of achieving security-centered penological objectives. Sharon Shalev has provided us with a long-overdue authoritative, meticulously-researched portrait and thoughtful, scholarly analysis of this draconian innovation.’
-Professor Hans Toch, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany

'Throughout this book, Shalev creates an atmosphere that makes the reader feel as though they are within the walls of the most secure prison in the US.

Supermax is an interesting and provocative book filled with important and rare observation which are critical for understanding the inner controls of supermax prisons. The macro- and micro-level analysis of supermax prisons is ideal for a variety of readers, even those with rudimentary knowledge of the supermax phenomenon. The theoretical approach, coupled with extensive reference to empirical data, provides a unique vantage point from which to examine supermax prisons in the US. Supermax is a must read for prison scholars, policy makers, academics, or anyone fascinated with, or interested in, the rise of these institutions.' - Rachelle Larocque, PhD Candidate, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge in the Howard Journal, May 2011

'This is a very thought provoking book.'
- Donald Urquhart, Retired Police Officer and Chair of the Scottish Community Safety Network

'Shalev ultimately provides a meticulous, authoritative account that effectively combines theory with documentary material in an accessible format. In this regard Supermax provides for a broad readership including academics, students and the general public while also serving as vital reading for legal practitioners and advocates, correctional staff and policymakers along with interested community members.'

'Shalev presents powerful arguments against supermax that are crafted in a way which ultimately confronts and cuts through the official reasoning and rhetoric that comprise powerful justificatory discourses underpinning the continuing push for prison securitization. It is for this reason and along with others described above that Shalev’s book is a must read.'
-Bree Carlton, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol 44 Iss 2

'This is a highly accomplished work based upon what must have been a particularly harrowing piece of research regarding the supermax prison estate in the United States.'

'It is a highly accessible and compelling piece...extremely interesting and stimulating to read...'

'This is a stimulating and thought-provoking book on a matter that is at the extremes of penological debate, however the overarching themes of security and risk management as justifications for such measures integrate the book well into wider debates surrounding punishment in the 21st century. It is a refreshing engagement with the wider view of the offender and society being potential victims of an over-enthusiastic penal policy...I would recommend this book to anyone interested in punishment and penal policy.'
-Jennifer Sloan, University of Sheffield, in International Review of Victimology, vol 17 no 2.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781843924081
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 2/24/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharon Shalev is a Fellow at the Mannheim Centre for Criminology at the London School of Economics.

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Table of Contents

List of tables and figures

1 Introduction: the supermax phenomenon 1

2 Solitary confinement as a penal strategy: a brief history 12

3 Factors and actors in the rise of supermax prisons 28

4 Ideologies of control: discourses on the goals and of supermax prisons 44

5 The bureaucratisation of control: prisoner classification and placement in supermax prisons 60

6 Technologies of control: the architectural design, physical fixtures and security arrangements in supermax prisons 96

7 Inside a supermax: daily routines and prisoner provisions 140

8 The dynamics of control: views from the control room, views from the cells 170

9 Evaluating supermax confinement 207

Appendix Responses to documentary film on supermaxes 229

Bibliography 237

Index 261\

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