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How Many Supermax Prisons Are There?

Supermax prisons, also known as “control unit” or “maximum control facilities”, are high-security prisons where inmates are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day. Supermax prisons house the most dangerous prisoners in extremely restrictive conditions. But how many of these facilities exist in the United States today?

The Rise of Supermax Prisons

The first supermax prison opened in 1983 at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. It was designed to house problematic and dangerous inmates after two corrections officers were killed by inmates at the prison. This launched the beginning of the supermax prison movement, with more facilities opening over the next few decades.

By the 1990s, most states had built their own supermax prisons or sections within existing prisons to house problematic inmates. The number of supermax prisons rose sharply between 1990 and 2000. By 1999, studies estimated there were 57 supermax facilities in 34 states plus the federal system.

Defining Supermax Standards

There is no one universal definition for what constitutes a “supermax” facility. However, there are some common standards and criteria:

  • Solitary confinement for 22-24 hours per day in a small cell
  • Little-to-no contact with other inmates, visitors, or staff
  • Restricted and closely monitored movement when allowed out of cell
  • Extra security measures like remote-controlled doors and surveillance cameras

The most restrictive supermax conditions will involve no work, education, or rehabilitation programs for inmates. But some supermax facilities offer limited programming while still isolating inmates.

How Many Supermax Facilities Exist Today?

Estimates on the number of supermax prisons in the United States today vary, as there is no definitive list or count. But most recent estimates find there are approximately 130-150 supermax facilities across the country. Here are some statistics on supermax prisons today:

  • A 2021 report identified 132 supermax facilities in 42 states plus the federal system. Of these, 75 were stand-alone supermax prisons and 57 were supermax units within lower-security prisons.
  • In 2020, a VERA Institute of Justice report tallied 121 supermax prisons across the US holding over 30,000 inmates in extreme isolation.
  • Around 10-20% of the total state and federal prison population is housed in some form of restrictive housing like a supermax, according to prison reform advocacy groups.
  • The federal bureau of prisons has a supermax facility, ADX Florence in Colorado, which houses notorious inmates like El Chapo, Ted Kaczynski, and Eric Rudolph.
  • Major states like California, Florida, New York, and Texas have multiple supermax facilities each. Smaller states may have just one.
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So while the exact number fluctuates year to year, most estimates say there are between 130 and 150 standalone supermax prisons and supermax units currently operating in the US. The total supermax population likely numbers over 30,000 inmates nationwide.

Supermax Populations

Supermax prisons house the most dangerous, violent, and high-risk inmates in the prison system. But the criteria for placing inmates here varies by state. Some common inmates found in supermax prisons include:

  • Members of prison gangs or organized crime
  • Inmates who have attacked or killed other prisoners
  • Prisoners who have rioted or taken guards hostage
  • Serial killers, terrorists, or other high-profile dangerous criminals
  • Inmates at high risk for escape or arranging attacks on the outside
  • Those seen as major discipline and behavioral problems

Once in a supermax, it is very difficult for inmates to be transferred back to lower security prisons. Criteria for transfer is based on good behavior and renouncing gang ties. Some critics argue mentally ill inmates are inappropriately placed in solitary supermax conditions.

Criticisms of Supermax Prisons

While supermax prisons are intended to increase safety and control over dangerous inmates, they are not without criticisms and controversies. Some of the major criticisms include:

  • Solitary confinement: Isolating prisoners for 22-24 hours per day in a small cell raises ethical issues and amounts to cruel punishment according to reform advocates. Long-term isolation can also cause mental health issues.
  • Expensive to operate: Supermax prisons require extensive security infrastructure and more staff, making them 2-3 times more expensive to build and operate per inmate than regular prisons.
  • Limited programming/education: With very limited out-of-cell time and access to rehabilitation services, some critics argue supermax prisons make inmates more likely to reoffend upon release.
  • Lack of oversight: There is limited independent oversight and lack of transparency into supermax prison conditions and policies in many states.
  • Disproportionate impact: Studies show a disproportionate number of minorities, mentally ill, and juvenile inmates end up in solitary supermax confinement.

Reform advocates argue tighter oversight, restricted use for extreme cases only, and more access to programs is needed to improve the supermax model. But support remains among law enforcement and officials managing dangerous inmate populations. The debate over supermax prisons continues today.

Notable Supermax Prisons

While there are over a hundred supermax facilities spread across the US today, some have gained notoriety for housing infamous inmates, incidents, or distinctive features. Here are some of the most notable supermax prisons:

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ADX Florence (Colorado)

  • Federal supermax run by the Bureau of Prisons
  • Houses many notorious criminals like drug lord “El Chapo”, Ted Kaczynski, Terry Nichols, Eric Rudolph, and Ramzi Yousef
  • Considered the highest security prison in the US with highly restrictive conditions

Pelican Bay State Prison (California)

  • One of California’s first supermax prisons when it opened it 1989
  • About 10% of inmates spend years in solitary SHU (Security Housing Unit) cells
  • Subject of multiple lawsuits, hunger strikes over SHU conditions

United States Penitentiary Marion (Illinois)

  • The first supermax prison, opened in 1983 after inmate murders of officers
  • Very restrictive conditions led to prisoners being held in permanent lockdown
  • Mostly demolished and downgraded to medium security in 2006

Colorado State Penitentiary

  • Houses infamous prisoners like “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols
  • Built underground into the side of a mountain for security
  • Houses many prisoners in long-term administrative segregation

Singapore Changi Prison Complex

  • Famous historic former supermax site operated by Singapore Prison Services
  • Housed high-profile criminals in solitary cells with no contact with other inmates
  • Converted to expanded lower security prison space in 2005

Oversight and Reform Efforts

With growing controversies around use of solitary confinement and mental health impacts, there are increasing oversight efforts and reforms being proposed for the use of supermax prisons:

  • Legislation: Some states like New York have passed laws restricting solitary confinement. Federal legislation has been proposed to ban or limit solitary for juveniles, pregnant women, and mentally ill in federal prisons.
  • Lawsuits: Class action lawsuits have challenged mental health impacts and cruel/unusual punishment of solitary confinement in supermaxes. Settlements forced states like California to restrict segregated housing.
  • Independent oversight committees: Some prison agencies have established oversight committees with outside experts and public stakeholders to review supermax policies and conditions.
  • United Nations standards: UN special rapporteurs on torture and other human rights groups have condemned long periods of solitary confinement as torture.
  • Alternatives: Some states are trying alternatives to supermax isolation, like incentive programs, counseling, transitional units and more out-of-cell time with other inmates.
YearNumber of Supermax Facilities
19831
199034
199957
2020121
2021132

Conclusion

Supermax prisons housing the most dangerous prisoners have proliferated since the 1980s as states look for ways to increase inmate control and safety. Estimates place the current number of supermaxes at 130-150 nationwide. But these facilities are not without criticism, especially the extensive use of solitary confinement and lack of programs. Oversight and reforms seek to improve supermax conditions while still keeping high-risk inmates separate from the general prison population. The debate around the use and conditions in supermax prisons will likely continue in coming years.

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Related Questions:

Where are supermax prisons located?

Supermax prisons are located across the United States, with at least one supermax facility located in most states. States with the most supermaxes include California, Florida, Texas, New York, and the federal bureau of prisons. High-profile supermaxes like ADX Florence in Colorado and Pelican Bay in California house some of the highest-risk prisoners. Smaller states may have only one supermax facility. Geographic location is less relevant than having extremely secure design and facilities for solitary confinement of dangerous inmates.

What are typical supermax prison cell sizes?

A typical supermax solitary confinement cell is 6 x 8 feet or 8 x 10 feet, about the size of a small bathroom. Cells are furnished with just a bed, sink, toilet and sometimes a small desk or shelf. Cell doors are made of steel and plexiglass with slots used to handcuff inmates before entry/exit. Cells have security cameras for constant surveillance. Inmates spend 22-24 hours per day alone in their small cell with no contact with other prisoners.

How does solitary confinement in supermax impact mental health?

Long-term solitary confinement as practiced at supermax prisons can have detrimental mental health effects. These include:

  • Anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances
  • Hypersensitivity to stimuli
  • Perceptual distortions, hallucinations
  • Paranoia, panic attacks
  • Impulsiveness, difficulty with thinking/concentration
  • Increased risk of self-harm and suicide

Studies estimate at least 30-50% of supermax inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Isolating them can exacerbate existing illnesses. Even mentally healthy prisoners can develop problems after prolonged isolation. Critics argue solitary confinement is essentially torture.

What are the alternatives to supermax prisons?

Some suggested alternatives to supermax prisons include:

  • Dedicated mental health treatment units for ill inmates instead of solitary
  • Units with incentives and more out-of-cell programming for problematic inmates
  • Temporary short-term segregation in cases of violence instead of long-term isolation
  • Close monitoring of gang leaders integrated with general population
  • Transitional programs preparing long-term segregated inmates to return to mainline prisons
  • Emphasis on addressing root behavior problems over punishment and isolation

How can you reform or improve conditions in supermax prisons?

Reform advocates suggest various ways to improve conditions and oversight of supermax prisons:

  • Ban solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women, and mentally ill
  • Strictly limit solitary to short-term disciplinary segregation, not years
  • Provide counseling and transitional support when returning inmates to general population
  • Increase mental health screening and services
  • Offer more out-of-cell time and rehabilitative programming where feasible
  • Provide independent oversight with transparency into conditions and policies
  • Train officers on de-escalating confrontations and minimizing use of isolation

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