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The Psychological Effects of Supermax Prisons

Supermaxes in the Netherlands

Originally, the Dutch prison system employed its correctional staff on "group assignments", in opposition to the traditional "watchman" approach that tended to dehumanize the already fragile relationship between guard and inmate. However, with a new conservative government accompanied by new right-of-centre ideologies in the mid-1980s, penal policy changed dramatically. Faced with budgetary cutbacks, Dutch prisons adopted a concetrationist approach over a dispersal approach to more cost-effectively manage the country's growing prison population. However, instead of building a new supermax, the Netherlands built a "mini supermax," called an EBI, housed within the existing prisons. Placement in an EBI was reserved for offenders assessed as high escape-risks...

In the Dutch EBI supermax prisons of the 1990s, prisoners were allowed out of their cells for more work hours and more activity hours per day than their American counterparts. Security was maintained by a "double-perimeter", or prison-within-a-prison custody. There were frequent complaints of having no privacy, family time, or leisure time, as many EBI inmates had to wait for the rest of the prison's inmates to vacate the exercise facilities. Officers frequently resorted to segregation, and an unusually high turnover meant that guards and inmates failed to develop adequate knowledge of one other's personal characteristics, exacerbating interpersonal tension. Escapes were also frequent because the EBI was so close to the entrance of the prison, and because the EBI had no facilities of its own, requiring a constant movement of prisoners throughout the prison.

These early attempts, however, met with little success. In 1992 there was an escape attempt at Hoorn prison, and shortly after four more escaped from Rotterdam's EBI unit, taking hostages at gunpoint. Again in 1992 four more EBI inmates escaped from Hoogeveen. In 1993, a further three more escaped. A flurry of more escapes that year followed, to the point where the situation in the Nethlerland's supermax system was a mockery of maximum-security incarceration.

In 1997, a new supermax was built in Vught, established directly adjacent to the Vught concentration camp that imprisoned Dutch and Belgian political prisoners during WWII. In Vught, drugs even as as seemingly harmless as marijuana, are not tolerated. Conditions are strict and guards are custodially oriented. In Vught, public protection and security are the most important purposes of incarceration. Like most supermaxes in the US, programs like education and literacy are only granted in periods of "good behaviour," and incentives are earned just like everything else.

Vught once used a "temporary" supermax prison to house serious offenders, built in a bunker in the centre of the facility, whose 33 cells came complete with the usual sink, chair, bed, desk, and toilet. The new EBI, however, is more secure, with fully monitored, glass-separated visitations, intercom-only communication, handcuff regimes, recorded telephone calls, regular body searches, and an automatic lockdown in the case of a hostage situation. Below is the daily schedule in Vught:

Vught correctional officers, most of them experienced, currently find the job in Vugt satisfying and clear in its objectives, although prisoners, understandably, find living in Vught a different matter. Dissatisfied with prison conditions, Vught prisoners at least once took the prison to court over operating under sub-standard conditions. Conditions were, in fact, so bad that in 1999 the European Commission for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment ruled that the EBI indeed did have "harmful consequences for those subjected to it."

Supermax Prisons in the United States today

In 1997, there were approximately 32 to 42 supermax prisons operating in the United States; today there are over 60 (Rhodes 2002).

By 2002, approximately half a percent of all federal inmates served their time in United States Penitentiary (USP) Marion , located 300 miles from Chicago, Illinois, and Florence ADX, located 90 miles south of Denver, Colorado. Both of these prisons house the "worst" and "most violent" prisoners, under the strictest and tightest conditions. Both Florence ADX and USP Marion were denounced by Amnesty International for violating the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. 23-28% of these inmates had killed either guards or inmates inside prison, and the rest had murders on the outside...

Marion had the only Control Unit until 1994, when it transferred it to Florence ADX. At Marion, the Control Unit had only 57 prisoners, most of whom were hostage-takers, escapists, inmate or guard murderers, and prison rioters. As of 2002, ADX held 47 inmates.

Several famous prisoners serve or have served their time at ADX: "unabomber" Ted Kaczynksi, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Al Queda terrorists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, Chicago Black Gangster Disciple Leader Larry Hoover, as well as Tupac Shakur's stepfather.

The average time spent for prisoners in Control Units is 3 years; if they demonstrate good conduct, inmates often move on to less secure levels within the prison relocate to other, more "standard" prisons.

US supermax prions, like their Dutch counterparts, but perhaps more intensely so, operate under the same incapacitating conditions of security. They have little contact with staff, spend 23 hours a day confined to their cell, and have most materials, such as food trays, medical supplies, and library materials, delivered directly to their cell. Inmates are escorted shackled and cuffed, accompanied by 4-man escorts. The Secure Housing Unit at Pelican Bay Prison in California, for instance, denies its inmates access to psychiatric and specialized medical care, confines inmates to cells for 22-23 hours per day, and withholds all opportunities for congregate dining and congregate exercising periods. The SHU also denies inmates access to rehabilitative and vocational programs, and religious services. There are also reports from researchers that prisoners housed in SHU's such as those in Pelican Bay are intermittently tortured, using methods such as forced-cell-extraction, fire-hosing, hog-tying, beating under restraints, threats against family, sensory deprivation, and staged fighting for officers' entertainment (Prison Activist Resource Center, 1998). On a regular basis, diabetics will go without medication, cells will remain unheated in the winter months, mail will be illegally censored, and broken toilets will be left unfixed.

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