Volume 17, Issue 2, 2014
Special Project: Political Theory and Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration
The Supermax Prison
A Blunt Means of Control, or a Subtle Form of Violence?
Supermaxes are technologically advanced prisons designed to keep individuals in long-term solitary confinement, structurally eliminating all physical, human contact for months, years, and sometimes decades at a time. Supermax designers and prison administrators explain that supermax prisons contain “the worst of the worst prisoners”—those too violent and dangerous to live in a general prison population. This article explores and challenges the legally and publicly accepted idea that supermaxes control violence. Drawing on interviews with and the writings of former supermax prisoners, I document the often-invisible ways supermax prisoners experience violence. I argue supermaxes should be viewed not just as tools of violence control, but as tools of violence production. Supermaxes are a novel and uniquely modern form of state violence, and their legal and ethical implications should be reconsidered.