Book Review: The Globalization of Supermax Prisons

Book Review: The Globalization of Supermax Prisons

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons
Edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross
(Rutgers University Press, 2013)
240 pages, $28.95 paperback

Book review by Gary Hunter

“Zero tolerance” is a phrase that has found its way into many facets of our society. But nowhere is it more prevalent than in the vocabulary used by lawmakers when waging our nation’s relentless, ongoing wars on crime and drugs. Justice and due process have taken a backseat to punishment as mass incarceration has become the norm, and placing prisoners in long-term solitary confinement is now a widely accepted practice.

This anthology, The Globalization of Supermax Prisons, edited by Jeffery Ian Ross, provides unique insights into a worldwide approach to the depersonalization of incarceration through segregation. Approximately 7.2 million people in the U.S. are under correctional supervision of some type, including 2.3 million confined in prisons and jails. It is estimated that 25,000 prisoners are held in supermax facilities, and there is evidence that this disturbing trend has gone global.

In 1983, two guards were stabbed at the federal correctional institution in Marion, Illinois. Prisoners were placed on a 23-hour-a-day lockdown, policies were rewritten, and what was formerly a maximum-security prison was transformed into the first official supermax facility in the United States.

Almost simultaneously, in response to riots throughout its prison system, Canada constructed its own Special Handling Units (SHUs). The Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ontario, and Correctional Development Centre in Laval, Québec, were transformed into temporary SHUs in the early 1980s.

Solitary confinement and isolation are not new ideas. For decades, penal systems have used “sweat boxes” and “the hole” as punitive methods of forcing prisoners into submission, regardless of the physical or mental damage they caused. But recent years have ushered in a trend of solitary confinement on a scale never before seen. Solitary used to last for days or weeks; now, it extends for months and years. It has become the norm and is being used globally, which is what The Globalization of Supermax Prisons exposes and addresses.

Mexico’s use of island prisons mirrored the use of Alcatraz in the U.S. to isolate prisoners. As South Africa succumbed to world pressure for an end to apartheid, its Department of Correctional Services opened supermax facilities, including CMAX in Pretoria in 1997 and Ebongweni shortly thereafter. The practice of isolating prisoners stretches back centuries. In 1788, Britain converted the continent of Australia into a penal colony to segregate prisoners deemed “…fit to live neither in their homeland nor in a convict settlement where free settlers lived….” Today, the U.S. maintains much the same policy using the island country of Cuba, where accused terrorist detainees are housed at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons also reveals the violence perpetrated on prisoners by guards. The world was appalled by the atrocities at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where members of the U.S. military (including a former prison guard) tortured detainees. We have also been given a glimpse of torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay, such as the painful forced feeding of hunger-striking detainees. But few have heard about the 52 indictments against five guards at ADX Florence, the federal Bureau of Prisons’ supermax facility, who dubbed themselves the “cowboys.” The guards were charged with numerous abuses, including choking prisoners and placing excrement in their food.

At Canada’s Millhaven Institution, some newly arriving prisoners were forced through a gauntlet where guards “…would beat [them] as they walked or ran through.” Rebels in Mexico’s Islas Marias island prison were placed in cells that would flood to the ceiling during high tide.

The inhumane mentality that fuels the drive to build more supermax facilities flies in the face of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and findings by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, which has called for a ban on solitary confinement. The physical brutality in supermax prisons is exceeded only by the emotional and psychological cruelty inflicted by the extreme isolation in such facilities.

If there is a downside to The Globalization of Supermax Prisons, it is that it does not cater to the casual reader. Be prepared to decipher phrases like “Fordist-Keynesian regime,” “carceral hyperinflation,” and “fin de siècle” (French for “end of the 19th century”). But for those willing to learn, there is a wealth of information to be had. So bring your unabridged dictionary, your reading glasses, and an appetite for insight when you sit down to digest The Globalization of Supermax Prisons. It’s definitely worth the effort and demonstrates why we should have zero tolerance for supermax facilities both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

This book is available from or from Rutgers University Press, c/o Long­leaf Services, 116 S. Boundary St., Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808; 919-966-7449.

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)