Against SuperMax

In the Land of the Free, 25,000 people are currently being subjected to conditions that amount to a crime against humanity.

Shane Bauer, held in solitary by the Iranian theocracy, reports from Pelican Bay. It’s enough to make a proud American weep for his country.

A small number of prisoners are hopelessly violent and disruptive: they try to kill other prisoners, they throw feces at the guards. Another, larger group is involved with one or another prison gang, in effect challenging the authorities about who controls the prison itself. Both groups need to be managed; whether they could be made smaller by running less barbarous prisons is a longer-term question.

The way the prisons deal with such prisoners now is the “Secure Housing Unit” (SHU, pronounced “shoe”) and its relative the SuperMax prison. These involve such extreme isolation as to amount to torture, especially when continued, as they often are, for months or years. And there are currently 25,000 people housed there. That’s on top of the even larger number subjected to temporary isolation in other disciplinary units (generically, “The Hole”).

Even if there is a tiny number of prisoners who needed truly extreme treatment, it still needn’t be the sort of crime against humanity involved in an SHU or SuperMax. And that number isn’t anything like 25,000. Instead, the SHUs are filled up with people who have done nothing in particular, while a prisoner can wind up in The Hole for weeks simply for being a witness to a prisoner-on-prisoner assault.

Incarceration is violence. Prison administration is arbitrary power. Both are dangerous. A country committed to freedom and the rule of law should try to use less of them, not more. And there’s no inconsistency between those beliefs and the belief that crime is a terrible problem and that punishment is a necessary part of the solution. You don’t have to hold a quasi-religious belief in non-violence to think that violence ought to be minimized rather than being maximized. Machiavelli called it “cruelty well used.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Against SuperMax”

  1. Incarceration is violence. Prison administration is arbitrary power.

    This is the indictment against private prison systems.

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