inside prison

The Psychological Effects of Supermax Prisons

The Effects of Supermax Confinement on Violent Behaviour

While there is mixed support that supermax security increases safety of staff, there is no support that it reduces the level of inmate-on-inmate violence. There is one hypothesis that violence in supermax prisons, like many high-security prisons, depends on the relative degree of "homeostasis." Power struggles often fluctuate, with levels of inmate domination varying in their intensity as a result of new gangs forming and leaving, new leaders rising and falling. At the Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois, it was found that inmate-on-staff assaults did in fact reduce significantly, although there was no similar reduction on inmate-on-inmate assaults.

Part of this may be explained by correctional officers absolving themselves of accountability in supermax facilities, knowing that there are a wealth of referrals available to them where the responsibility of correcting the inmate's behaviour can be conveniently transferred to someone else. Overall, however, supermaxes have not shown to increase the safety for both inmates and staff. There is, expectedly, an under-supply of research in this area, knowing that by virtue of supermaximum prisons' extreme commitment to security there is a similarly extreme degree of inaccessibility to outside observers.

In contrast to these aggregate null reports, Rhodes' (2002) research finds that many prisoners in supermax report feelings of being dead, broken and lifeless, and prone to extreme bouts of uncontrollable rage. As one prisoner in Rhodes' research reports:

"it’s gonna make them into something with a lot of violent
potential, a lot of hostility. For months, years on end you’re in this little box.
It comes down to no recognition of your being. Every day becomes extreme.
It’s like a polar environment, and you develop a reactive armor."

Similar sentiments were expressed by inmates in Kingston Penitentiary following their notorious rioting of 1971 that left two prisoners dead. The psychiatrist at Kingston Pen at the time, Dr. George Scott, noted that prisoners were suffering from "sheer, unadulterated boredom" in the period leading up to the riot, spending 16 hours of their day in small, bare cells, with little opportunity to access quality rehabilitative programs or to voice complaints. Furthermore, Scott noted that the maximum-security conditioning at Kingston Penitentiary had "solidified" the inmate subculture until a point at which inmates replaced their independence and individuality with cold hostility and cynicism. An inquiry launched shortly after the riot confirmed these speculations.

A study by Craig Haney (2003), who researched conditions at Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), evinced that the psychological effects of supermax confinement can induce appetite and sleep disturbances, panic attacks, anxiety, uncontrollable rage, hallucinations, and self-mutilations, some of which occur from the extreme sensory deprivation of such conditions. (It has been speculated that one of the factors behind the Kingston Penitentiary riot in 1971 was that prisoners were restricted from "personalizing" their cell-space, or decorating their living environments, creating an environment akin to sensory deprivation or loss of control.) In addition to Haney's medical symptoms there are subtler cognitive, attitudinal, or homeostatic alterations incurred. Below is a comprehensive inventory of the documented effects from psychiatric reports and research into supermax confinement:

  1. negative attitudes
  2. insomnia
  3. social withdrawal
  4. hypersensitivity
  5. ruminations (compulsive preoccupations, duress, or strain produced by indecision)
  6. paranoia
  7. hallucinations
  8. self-mutilations
  9. hopelessness
  10. a sense of impending doom
  11. suicidal ideation and suicide attempts
  12. aggression.

The kind of inmates staff may begin to encounter in supermax prisons include those suffering from suicidal behaviour, acute or chronic psychosis, or those externalizing their pent-up aggression by destroying property (such as toilets), and attacking, stabbing, or masturbating on staff. Haney also draws striking parallels between supermax inmates and torture victims, especially those displaying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and those unfortunate to be subjected to so-called 'deprivation and constraint' torture techniques" (132).

Haney's research of inmates confined to the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison in California reveals overwhelmingly high prevalence rates of convicts experiencing both short-term-acute and long-term-chronic psychologically-damaging effects.


91% of inmates suffered anxiety and nervousness, 84% suffered lethargy, 84% had trouble sleeping, 70% were approaching a nervous breakdown, over 60% had chronically sweaty palms, heart palpitations, and loss of appetite, and over 50% had trembling hands, dizziness, and nightmares.


The similarities between both the positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia and the effects of supermax confinement are undeniable. Over 80% of inmates experienced ruminations and intrusive thoughts, irrational bouts of anger, oversensitivity to stimuli in their environment, confused thoughts, and social withdrawal. Over 70% experienced emotional flatness and "losing the ability to feel." Over 60% talked to themselves and fantasized about violence, while just under 50% suffered from perception disorders, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts. According to Haney, prevalence rates for these kinds of psychiatric symptoms were "extremely high" when compared not only the general population, but to other protective custody unit prisoners, as well (135).

Haney likens his findings to those of Kingston Penitentiary psychiatric Dr. George D. Scott, who described his observations of incarceration as "isolation sickness," more recently called "RES" (Reduced Environmental Stimulation), a disorder that includes memory problems, free-floating anxiety, derealization, aggressive fantasies, paranoia, and motor excitement or self-destructive outbursts.

It is thus both surprising and painful to discover that prisoners in Haney's study actually adapt and "get used to it" (138). Particularly disturbing is his finding that inmate may have "accommodated so profoundly to the supermax environment that they may be unable to live anywhere else," and have turned their torturous conditions into "functional" conditions (138). It seems that supermax prisons, in their intention to manipulate and control behaviour, have achieved not only the control of behaviour, but the elimination of it altogether. As he notes, "in extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving" (138).

Supermaxes and Psychopaths

One particular offender most suited, both ideologically and functionally, to the supermaximum prison environment, is the psychopath. As Haney (2001) states,

"many prisoners are placed in supermax not specifically for what they have done but rather on the basis of who someone in authority has judged them to be."

It is often described that correctional workers must be especially judicious when monitoring psychopathic prisoners. Empathy is considered dangerous, self-consciousness must be inhibited, and compromise must be recognized and avoided at all costs. Serial killer Clifford Olson, for instance, was notorious for convincing guards to bring in materials for him that went against prison policy. One prison worker was cited by Rhodes as coming to view one notorious psychopath's prior violent behaviour as "understandable."

In prison, psychopaths often have insidious motives, and come to develop a camaraderie between staff and themselves for achieving, piece by piece, their desires. Prison workers view psychopaths as having "ice in their veins," frequently passing polygraph examinations with flying colours because they are dispassionately disconnected from their own emotions, and are instead attentively tuned into to other people's behaviour, including the polygraph examiner.

One psychopathic inmate in Rhodes' study was frightening to prison staff not because he failed to learned to adapt to the harsh regime of prison rules and unforgiving prison environment, but because he learned too well.

In conclusion, findings regarding the psychological effects of supermax prisons upon inmates are mixed, but this ignores the fundamental purpose of prison, which is, essentially, either behavioural or cognitive manipulation. While behavioural manipulation is the preferable ideal to cognitive manipulation, risk assessment research through meta-analyses have taught service-providers that cognitive styles, attitudes, philosophies, and general ways of thinking in fact regulate behaviour, and that these are prime treatment targets for treatment in prison. With psychopathy, a relatively new addition to the prison population, we are seeing a sort of paradox, where traditional methods of measuring what is "good" behaviour and what is "bad" simply do not apply. With psychopathy, what is "good" is only a false suggestion of good, a play put on by the actor to realize his or her utilitarian goals.

More research in the future will undoubtedly shed light on the issue of treatment resistance in psychopathy, especially in the context of supermax incarceration, but presently there is very little evidence to suggest that prison can currently achieve more than the minimum of incapacitating those wearing the "mask of sanity." For more information on violent offenders and impulsivity, see the Violent Offenders section of the site.

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