The United States uses supermax prisons to house prisoners it sees as dangerous. Officials claim that these facilities house “the worst of the worst.” But what are these facilities? And what rights do prisoners have in supermax prisons?
What is a supermax prison?
A supermax prison is the highest level of security facility in the United States. “Supermax” is just one name for these facilities. Officials often use other names to refer to them, including the following:
- special housing units,
- intensive prison management units,
- secured housing units,
- control units, and
- administrative maximum unit.
These prisons were built to be safer for prisoners and staff. They are strict, high-security facilities. Many of these facilities are in rural areas. Many of the security features are part of the building design. Architects designed them to limit how much prisoners can move. They also designed them to make it easy for staff to observe prisoners.
Who gets sent to supermax prisons?
Courts do not decide who goes to a supermax facility. Prison officials make these decisions. But there are no standard criteria for making these decisions.
Supermax prisons house prisoners who displayed violent behavior. This violence could have been towards staff or other prisoners. These prisons also house prisoners who did not follow rules in lower-security facilities.
Some supermax prisons also house prisoners who need protection. These may be high-profile prisoners such as organized crime leaders or politicians. It could also include domestic and international terrorists.
Lastly, supermax facilities also house prisoners from “special populations.” This includes groups like death row prisoners.
What extra restrictions do you have in a supermax?
You do not lose your constitutional rights in supermax prisons. But these facilities place many restrictions on your life. These prisons limit your movement. Here are some of the restrictions you will face in supermax:
- You will spend 22-23 hours per day alone in your cell.
- There is only one hour of recreation time.
- Your recreation time may not be outside.
- Phone calls are not permitted in most cases.
- Visitation is extremely limited.
- When you do have visits, you and your loved one will be separated by glass.
- You will have limited contact with other prisoners and prison staff.
What is life in a supermax prison like?
In a supermax facility, officials lock you in your cell from 22 to 24 hours per day. Your cell is made of reinforced concrete. It may only have one small window. The bed in your cell is a concrete slab with a thin mattress on top. You will most likely have a toilet and a shower to yourself. This is so staff does not need to transport you to and from the bathrooms.
Prison staff make their rounds every day. But people like counselors and education staff will visit you at your cell. You will not leave your cell to meet with them. Guards will also deliver three meals a day to your cell.
The only times you will leave your cell are for exercise and visitation. You can still receive visitors in supermax. But all visits are no-contact ones. That means you will not be able to touch your visitor. Usually, bulletproof glass separates you.
You keep your constitutional rights, even in a supermax facility. But life inside these facilities is very restricted. Advocates and officials disagree about whether supermax facilities violate human and civil rights. The ACLU and other groups have filed lawsuits about conditions in supermax. But, so far, courts have ruled that these facilities are legal under U.S. law.