Supermax prison

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ADX Florence

A super-maximum security (supermax) or administrative maximum (ADX) prison is a "control-unit" prison, or a unit within prisons, which represents the most secure level of custody in the prison systems of certain countries.

The objective is to provide long-term, segregated housing for inmates classified as the highest security risks in the prison system and those who pose an extremely serious threat to both national and global security.[1]

Characteristics and practices[edit]

According to the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the United States government, "a supermax is a stand-alone unit or part of another facility and is designated for violent or disruptive incarcerated individuals. It typically involves up to 23-hour-per-day, solitary confinement for an indefinite period of time. Those incarcerated in supermax housing have minimal contact with staff and other inmates", a definition confirmed by a majority of prison wardens.[1]

In 2001, academics Leena Kurki and Norval Morris wrote that there was no universal, agreed upon definition for "supermax" and that prisons are classified inconsistently. They identified four general features of supermax prisons:[2]

  1. Long-term: once transferred to a supermax prison, incarcerated individuals tend to stay there for several years or indefinitely.
  2. Powerful administration: supermax administrators and correctional officers have ample authority to punish and manage incarcerated individuals, without outside review or prisoner grievance systems.
  3. Solitary confinement: supermax prisons rely heavily on intensive (and long-term) solitary confinement, which is used to isolate and punish prisoners as well as to protect them from themselves and each other. Communication with outsiders is minimal to none.
  4. Very limited activities: few opportunities are provided for recreation, education, substance abuse programs, or other activities generally considered healthy and rehabilitative at other prisons.

Those who are in a supermax prison are placed not as a punishment of their crimes but by their previous history when incarcerated or based on reliable evidence of an impending disruption, such as a gang leader or the leader of a radical movement. These decisions are made as administrative protection measures and the prisoners in a supermax are deemed by correctional workers as a threat to the safety and security of the institution itself.[2]

The amount of programming for those in prison varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Certain jurisdictions provide entertainment for their incarcerated population in the form of television, educational and self-help programs. Others provide instructors who speak through the cell door to individuals who are incarcerated. Some jurisdictions provide no programming to its incarcerated population.[2] In a supermax, incarcerated people are generally allowed out of their cells for only one hour a day (one-and-a-half hours in California state prisons). Exercise is done in indoor spaces or small, secure, outdoor spaces, usually alone or in a pair and always watched by correctional officers. Group exercise is offered only to those who are in transition programs.

Prisoners receive their meals through ports in the doors of their cells.[3]

People in these prisons are under constant surveillance, usually with CCTV cameras. Cell doors are usually opaque, while the cells may be windowless. Furnishings are plain, with poured concrete or metal furniture. Cell walls, and sometimes plumbing, may be soundproofed to prevent communication between people.[3]

Supermax and Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisons are controversial. One criticism is that the living conditions in such facilities violate the United States Constitution, specifically, the Eighth Amendment's proscription against "cruel and unusual" punishments.[4] A 2011 New York Bar Association comprehensive study suggested that supermax prisons constitute "torture under international law" and "cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution".[5] In 2012, a federal class action suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and officials who run ADX Florence SHU (Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Civil Action 1:12-cv-01570) alleged chronic abuse, failure to properly diagnose prisoners, and neglect of prisoners who are seriously mentally ill.[6]



An early form of supermax-style prison unit appeared in Australia in 1975, when "Katingal" was built inside the Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney. Dubbed the "electronic zoo" by inmates, Katingal was a super-maximum security prison block with 40 prison cells having electronically operated doors, surveillance cameras, and no windows. It was closed down two years later over human rights concerns.[7] Since then, some maximum-security prisons have gone to full lockdown as well, while others have been built and dedicated to the supermax standard. In September 2001, the Australian state of New South Wales opened a facility in the Goulburn Correctional Centre to the supermax standard. While its condition is an improvement over that of Katingal of the 1970s, this new facility is nonetheless designed on the same principle of sensory deprivation.[8][9] It has been set up for 'AA' prisoners who have been deemed a risk to public safety and the instruments of government and civil order or are believed to be beyond rehabilitation. Corrections Victoria in the state of Victoria also operates the Acacia and Melaleuca units at Barwon Prison which serve to hold the prisoners requiring the highest security in that state including Melbourne Gangland figures such as Tony Mokbel, and Carl Williams, who was murdered in the Acacia unit in 2010.


In 1985, the state government of São Paulo created an annex to a psychiatric penitentiary hospital meant to house the most violent inmates of the region and established the Penitentiary of Rehabilitation Center of Taubaté, also known as Piranhão. Previously, high-risk inmates were housed at a prison on Anchieta Island; however, that closed down after a bloody massacre. At Taubaté, inmates spent 23 hours of a day in solitary confinement and spent 30 minutes a day with a small group of seven to ten inmates. Ill-treatment of inmates occurred on a daily basis, causing major psychological impairment.[10]

Throughout the 1990s, and the early-2000s, Brazil faced major challenges with gang structures within its prisons. The gang Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) gained notoriety in the prison system and had new members joining within the prisons. Riots were a common occurrence and the gang culture became uncontrollable, leading authorities to pass the controversial Regime Disciplinar Diferenciado (RDD), a culture founded from disciplinary punishment.[11]


Stammheim Prison, in Stuttgart, Germany, opened as a supermax-style prison in 1964, with an additional wing built in 1975 to house members of the far-left militant Red Army Faction. At the time, it was considered one of the most secure prisons in the world.

United Kingdom[edit]

His Majesty's Prison Service in England and Wales has had a long history in controlling prisoners that are high-risk. Prisoners are categorized into four main classifications (A, B, C, D) with A being "highly dangerous" with a high risk of escaping to category D in which inmates "can be reasonably trusted in open conditions."[12]

The British government formed the Control Review Committee in 1984 to allow for regulating long-term disruptive prisoners. The committee proposed special units (called CRC units) which were formally introduced in 1989 to control for highly-disruptive prisoners to be successfully reintegrated. Yet a series of escapes, riots, and investigations by authorities saw the units come to a close in 1998. They were replaced by Close Supervision Centres (CSC).[13] It was reported to hold 60 of the most dangerous men in the UK in 2015. HM Prison Belmarsh has a High-Security Unit that can hold up to 48 prisoners. The prisoners are those of greatest risk of escape, terrorism, radicalising other prisoners or continuing organised crime from within the prison. Belmarsh was Britain's strictest prison in the United Kingdom.[14]

United States[edit]

Alcatraz Island is a historical prototype of the supermax prison standard.

The United States Penitentiary Alcatraz Island, opened in 1934, has been considered a prototype and early standard for a supermax prison.[15] A push for supermax prisons began in 1983, after two correctional officers, Merle Clutts and Robert Hoffman, were stabbed to death by inmates at Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. Norman Carlson, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, argued for a new type of prison to isolate uncontrollable inmates who "show absolutely no concern for human life".[16] USP Marion became the first "supermax" prison where inmates were isolated for 23 hours in their cells. By 1999, the United States contained at least 57 supermax facilities, spread across 30–34 states.[2]

In recent years[when?] a number of U.S. states have downgraded their supermax prisons, [citation needed] as has been done with Wallens Ridge State Prison, a former supermax prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Other supermax prisons that have gained notoriety for their harsh conditions and attendant litigation by inmates and advocates are the former Boscobel (in Wisconsin), now named the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, Red Onion State Prison (in western Virginia, the twin to Wallens Ridge State Prison), Tamms (in Illinois), and the Ohio State Penitentiary. Placement policies at the Ohio facility were the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case (Wilkinson v. Austin) in 2005[17] where the Court decided that there had to be some, but only very limited, due process involved in supermax placement.

ADX Florence

There is only one of the America's strictest supermax prison remaining in the U.S. federal prison system, ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado.[18] It houses numerous inmates who have a history of violent behavior in other prisons, with the goal of moving them from solitary confinement (up to 23 hours a day) to a less restrictive prison within three years.

However, it is best known for housing several inmates who have been deemed either too dangerous, too high-profile or too great a national security risk for even a maximum-security prison.[16] They include several prisoners convicted of domestic and international terrorism, such as Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who perpetrated the Oklahoma City Bombing; Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who separately attempted to detonate explosives on a commercial airplane flight; and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.[19] Other notable inmates include Robert Hanssen, convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and the world's most powerful drug lord, convicted in 2019.

However, many states now have created supermax prisons, either as stand-alone facilities or as secure units within lower-security prisons.[20] State supermax prisons include Pelican Bay in California and Tamms in Illinois. In 2006, USP Marion, the original model for the modern supermax prison, was downgraded to a medium-security prison. The California State Prison, Corcoran (COR) is a hybrid model, incorporating a supermax partition, housing or having housed high-security prisoners such as Charles Manson.

Cost-benefit analysis of supermax prisons[edit]

There is no set definition of a supermax prison; however, the United States Department of Justice and the National Institute of Corrections do agree on their purpose: "these units have basically the same function: to provide long-term, segregated housing for inmates classified as the highest security risks in a state’s prison system."[21]

Costs of operating a supermax prison[edit]

Building a supermax prison, or even retrofitting an existing prison, is expensive. Construction of ADX Florence cost $60 million[a] when it opened in 1994.[24]

Compared to a maximum security facility, supermax prisons cost about three times more on average.[25] The 1999 average annual cost for inmates at Colorado State Penitentiary, a supermax facility, was $32,383, compared with the annual inmate cost of $18,549 at the Colorado Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison; the cost of the latter facility being just 57% of the former.[26] The increased cost is due to the technology needed to further maintain a supermax: high-security doors, fortified walls, and sophisticated electronic systems, and because more people must be hired to maintain the buildings and facilities.[26]

ADX Florence is one of the strictest supermax prisons in the United States.

Prisons with supermax facilities[edit]

North America[edit]



United States[edit]

Allan B. Polunsky Unit houses State of Texas supermax units
Mississippi State Penitentiary houses State of Mississippi supermax units

Most of these facilities only contain supermax wings or sections, with other parts of the facility under lesser security measures.

South America[edit]


In Brazil, the "regime disciplinar diferenciado" (differentiated disciplinary regime), known by the acronym RDD, and strongly based on the Supermax standard, was created primarily to handle inmates who are considered capable of continuing to run their crime syndicate or to order criminal actions from within the prison system, when confined in normal maximum security prisons that allow contact with other inmates. Since its inception, the following prisons were prepared for the housing of RDD inmates:


  • Penitenciaría de Cómbita (Colombia) – follows supermax specifications, hosts terrorists and drug lords.
  • Establecimiento Penitenciario de Alta y Mediana Seguridad de Girón EPAMSGIRON.



  • Sassari District Prison "Giovanni Bacchiddu" at Bancali, Sardinia. The only Italian prison specially designed and built as a Supermax, housing about 90 super-high security criminals all subject to the provisions of the Article 41-bis prison regime, detained in self-contained sections, each with 4 cells, a small courtyard and a video-conference room where they can be interrogated and undergo trials without leaving the prison. This specially-designed supermax has been built to replace the old maximum-security prison of the Asinara island, the so-called "Italian Alcatraz", that was closed in 2002.[34]
  • Another 10 Italian prisons have Supermax sections housing 41-bis inmates, besides the ordinary detention facilities, as follows:
    • L'Aquila District Prison – The largest Supermax section in Italy, housing over 150 inmates.[35] Contains a section for female prisoners.
    • Cuneo District Prison – About 90 inmates.[36]
    • Novara District Prison – About 90 inmates.[37]
    • Parma District Prison – About 70 inmates.[38]
    • Rebibbia District Prison, Rome – About 60 inmates - also contains a section for female prisoners.[37]
    • Secondigliano District Prison "Pasquale Mandato", Naples – About 24 inmates.[37]
    • Spoleto Detention Structure – About 80 inmates.[39]
    • Terni District Prison – About 24 inmates.[37]
    • Tolmezzo District Prison – About 24 inmates.[37]
    • Viterbo District Prison "Mammagialla" – About 50 inmates.[40]
  • Another Supermax section was closed down during 2018.

United Kingdom[edit]




See also[edit]


  1. ^ Equivalent to over $110 million in 2021.[22][23]


  1. ^ a b Mears, Daniel P. (March 2006). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons (PDF) (Report).
  2. ^ a b c d Kurki, Leena; Morris, Norval (2001). "The Purposes, Practices, and Problems of Supermax Prisons". Crime and Justice. 28: 385–424. doi:10.1086/652214. ISSN 0192-3234. JSTOR 1147678. S2CID 147129265.
  3. ^ a b Shalev, Sharon (2009). Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement. Willan. doi:10.4324/9781843927136. ISBN 9781134026678.
  4. ^ – California's Security Housing Units. Archived 10 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ – The Brutality of Supermax Confinement
  6. ^ Cohen, Andrew (18 June 2012). "An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax". The Atlantic. Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  7. ^ Kennedy, Les (19 May 2004). "Final release for Katingal, misguided experiment in extreme jails". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  8. ^ a b Masters, Chris (17 November 2005). "SuperMax". Four Corners. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
  9. ^ Watson, Rhett (9 May 2009). "Inside the walls of SuperMax prison, Goulburn". The Daily Telegraph. Australia. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
  10. ^ Ross, Jeffrey Ian; de Jesus Filho, José (2013). "The Rise of the Supermax in Brazil". The globalization of supermax prisons. Rutgers University Press. pp. 130–132. ISBN 9780813557410. OCLC 784708328.
  11. ^ de Jesus Filho, José (2013). "The Rise of the Supermax in Brazil". In Ross, Jeffrey Ian (ed.). The Globalization of Supermax Prisons. Rutgers University Press. pp. 130–135. ISBN 9780813557410. JSTOR j.ctt5hjbxg.14. OCLC 784708328.
  12. ^ Ross, Jeffrey Ian; West Crew, Angela West (2013). "The Growth of the Supermax Option in Britain". The globalization of supermax prisons. Rutgers University Press. pp. 51–60. ISBN 9780813557410. OCLC 784708328.
  13. ^ Crews, Angela West (2013). "The Growth of the Supermax Option in Britain". In Ross, Jeffrey Ian (ed.). The Globalization of Supermax Prisons. Rutgers University Press. pp. 49–66. ISBN 9780813557410. JSTOR j.ctt5hjbxg.9. OCLC 784708328.
  14. ^ "Close Supervision Centres – a well run system which contains dangerous men safely and decently". Retrieved 10 March 2019.
  15. ^ Carlson, Peter M.; Garrett, Judith Simon, Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and Theory, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1999. Cf. Chapter 35, p.252, "Supermaximum Facilities", by David A. Ward.
  16. ^ a b Taylor, Michael (23 June 2011). "The Last Worst Place". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  17. ^ Wilkinson v. Austin 04-495 (2005), Link to case text
  18. ^ Vick, Karl (30 September 2007). "Isolating the Menace In a Sterile Supermax". The Washington Post. pp. A03. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  19. ^ Clare, Sean; Nasaw, Daniel (10 April 2012). "Just how bad are American 'supermax' prisons?". BBC News.
  20. ^ Riveland, C. (1999) Supermax prisons: overview and general considerations. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections
  21. ^ Collins, William C. (November 2004). Supermax Prisons and the Constitution: Liability Concerns in the Extended Control Unit (PDF) (Report).
  22. ^ "Home".
  23. ^ "CPI Inflation Calculator".
  24. ^ Binelli, Mark (26 March 2015). "Inside America's Toughest Federal Prison". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 10 March 2019.
  25. ^ Mears, Daniel P. "Evaluating the Effectiveness of Super max Prisons." PsycEXTRA Dataset (2006): n. pag. NCJRS, Jan. 2006. Web. 22 November 2015.
  26. ^ a b Pizarro, Jesenia; Stenius, Vanja M. K. (June 2004). "Supermax Prisons: Their Rise, Current Practices, and Effect on Inmates". The Prison Journal. 84 (2): 254–260. doi:10.1177/0032885504265080. S2CID 35051886.
  27. ^ Amellal, Djamila (December 2006). "The Special Handling Unit - High Security, Special Expertise". Let's Talk. 31 (2). Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved 26 August 2022.
  28. ^ Maximum Security | Hard Time, retrieved 3 February 2024
  29. ^ "Inside Maximum Security". Archived from the original on 5 August 2015. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  30. ^ "George Bell III Transferred from Parchman." WLBT. 18 August 2008. Retrieved on 10 August 2010.
  31. ^ Grondahl, Paul (24 July 2015). "Prison escapee David Sweat severely isolated, controlled in". Times Union. In corrections parlance, Five Points is known as a "super-max." It was built 15 years ago and the modular cell units were hauled to the rural prison site two at a time on flatbed trucks and bolted together end-to-end to form a cellblock.
  32. ^ Ward, Mike. "Hunt is on for escaped killer." Austin American-Statesman. 29 June 1999. A1. Retrieved on 27 November 2010. "Clifford Dwayne Jones' escape from the Estelle High-Security Unit on Sunday afternoon was the first from a Texas prison this year and the first from the "super max" lockup, as the unit is called."
  33. ^ Ward, Mike. "Death row inmates free guard, meet with activists." Austin American-Statesman. 23 February 2000. "A prison guard held hostage by two execution-bound killers inside Texas'``super maxdeath row[...]" and "Tuesday deep inside the maximum-security Terrell Unit just outside[...]"
  34. ^ Abbate, Lirio (2 February 2015). "L'isola dei reclusi: ecco il carcere durissimo (e segreto) per 90 superboss mafiosi". L'Espresso (in Italian). Retrieved 5 February 2019.
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  36. ^ "Cuneo - Casa circondariale". (in Italian). 7 January 2020. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  37. ^ a b c d e "Carceri nelle quali ci sono sezioni di "41 bis"". (in Italian). 7 January 2020. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  38. ^ "Nel carcere di Parma 625 detenuti: 127 sono ergastolani; 67 al 41 bis". (in Italian). 16 August 2020. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  39. ^ "Le Due Città". (in Italian). September 2010. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  40. ^ Strocchia, Raffaele (7 January 2020). "Mammagialla, 49 detenuti al 41 bis". tusciaweb (in Italian). Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  41. ^ "The Commandos Fact File From Inside The Gangsters' Code on". Retrieved 8 March 2015.
  42. ^ "Prison troublemakers face 'supermax' unit". The Nation. 30 June 2014. Retrieved 8 March 2015.

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