By: Allison Gamble
There has been a disturbing trend in America’s prison systems since the early 1990s, when, faced with rising costs and an overloaded system, the maximum security prison became the catch-all option to house violent criminals. By 1997, over 30 states had at least one maximum security prison. These “Supermax” prisons, originally meant only for the “worst of the worst,” have come under scrutiny by human right groups in both the United States and Europe.
Much like the asylums and dungeons of much earlier times, “Supermax” prisons no longer house only the most violent criminals, but have become dumping grounds for overflow from overcrowding in regular prisons. Flooded with the mentally ill, young criminals who might have chances at rehabilitation, and repeat offenders, super prisons are under fire for alleged inhumane treatment and violation of basic human rights.
In 1986, a national study of over 400 inmates concluded that every two out of three attempted suicides in the study group came from prisoners under solitary confinement. Other forensic psychology. net studies and reports have clearly shown consistent evidence that solitary confinement causes anxiety, depression, and increased violent behavior. Those without mental illness are far more likely to develop psychosis and other disorders during prolonged isolation, and those already ill are subjected to what amounts to psychological torture. Supermax prisons are notorious for their strict confinement of prisoners, and with an estimated 20 percent of criminals suffering from various mental illness, those kept alone for up to 23 hours a day in small cells, receiving no support or treatment, can only get worse.
Originally designed to protect the inmates from themselves and each other, Supermax prisons have taken isolation to the extreme. In facilities such as the PelicanBay maximum security prison, inmates are allowed very little in the way of personal property, entertainment, counseling, interaction, and outdoor exercise. Confined in small, barren cells that are lit 24 hours a day, the lack of external stimulus wears on the psyche quickly, creating feelings of extreme detachment and isolation from the outside world. This leads to anxiety as well as increased violence. Many inmates have claimed they cut or otherwise harm themselves just to feel something, and act out against guards as a means to make any contact with another human being.
Additionally, while super prisons do have doctors and mental health staff on call in each facility, “treatment” for many inmates includes being stripped and left in barren rooms for observation for indefinite periods. In many Supermax prisons, there is no air conditioning or air flow, limited shower allowances, and inadequate heating during cold months, leading to extreme temperature fluctuation that can have devastating effects on inmates’ physical and mental health.
Humans are social creatures and need interaction to survive. While criminals in super prisons have broken our society’s laws, they learn no coping skills and receive no rehabilitation support to learn to live once released. Many such criminals, a large portion of whom suffer mental illness brought on or exacerbated by months or years of confinement, are released directly back into the public at large. Needless to say, there is a high rate of repeat offense and suicide within this population once they face the overwhelming task of trying to reintegrate with society.
Fortunately, there is increasing awareness about the conditions in Supermax prisons. Activist groups, as well as some lawmakers, psychiatrists, news sources, doctors, and other officials are working together for more viable solutions to help deal with inmate overcrowding as well as help rehabilitate, educate, and prepare them to reenter society. There is no short-term solution, but it is becoming clear that Supermax prisons and their outdated and even barbaric methods better suited to a medieval dungeon are not effective.
For information on what some people are doing to reform prisons, visit:
Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing with forensic psychology. net. She can be reached by email here.