Super Prisons: The Effects on Inmates

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:

Innocence Project

Prison Reform

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.


Introducing … the New Editor

Greetings, CLTL Readers!

As the new editor of the Continuing Learning Through Education blog, I want to give everyone a quick introduction.I am Annie Bolthrunis, a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.  I will be editing and publishing this blog from now until the end of the Spring 2012 semester.  As well as being a student, I am also a Teaching Fellow, now assigned two sections of Business Communications.

I will want your help.

My experience in higher education began with two years at North Shore Community College as a Liberal Arts student.  I transferred from NSCC to Salem State College (now University) in 2005.  I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a concentration in Professional Writing and a minor in Philosophy.  While at Salem State, I also acted as Editor-in-Chief and Editor Emeritus of Red Skies, the school’s online magazine. While I enjoyed these editorial positions, I found that my true interest lay in writing, particularly creative non-fiction and fiction.  I began a novel, tentatively titled Nazi Zombies Take Salem, in a Writing Category Fiction class while at Salem State. Working on it has been fun and educational: it earned me the nickname “Crowbah,” as I know for a fact that should the apocalypse come, no weapon is better than a crowbar. Mine just has a New England accent.

After graduating in Spring 2009, I took a year off to decide what career path to take.  I found the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth, and because I hadn’t seen a graduate program in professional writing offered through another school, I applied and was admitted.  I began attending and teaching classes as a graduate assistant teacher in September of 2010.

Although I am in a professional writing program, I am keenly interested in all aspects of literature.  Some of my favorite writers include Charles Bukowski, Albert Camus, Alice Munro, and Jeffrey Eugenides, although I will read pretty much anything.  I’m also interested in many aspects of sociology and politics, so I think working as editor on this blog will be interesting and informative.

That’s where your help comes in.

The CLTL blog is always looking for submissions, whether in the area of literary analysis, alternative sentencing, or criminology. If you’re interested in writing a blog entry for us, or if you have any questions, we want to hear from you! Please contact me at

Annie Bolthrunis