Supermax Prisons: Looking Like Anachronisms?


Connecticut’s supermax Northern Correctional Institution, which opened 10 years ago this month amid much fanfare, has largely accomplished what it was designed to do: deter escapes, gang activity, and assaults on staff that had plagued Connecticut’s prison system, says the Hartford Courant. As Northern enters its second decade, critics question whether supermaxes are outdated -or worse. They are expensive to operate and designed to punish, not rehabilitate. As alternative sentencing options become more popular, supermaxes have begun looking like anachronisms whose bleakness fuels potentially costly lawsuits, places where inmates may grow more violent. In cases like the death row appeal on behalf of serial killer Michael Ross, lawyers and psychiatrists argue that supermaxes work too well, turning a prison into a place so intolerable that inmates might prefer death over a life buried in a sensory-depriving tomb. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments that the process for transferring a prisoner into Ohio’s supermax violates his constitutional rights. Maryland, has decided to abandon the supermax, concluding that it is inhumane.

Correction Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz denied requests for a tour of Northern for this article, even though reporters were routinely allowed in just a few years ago. More states are barring journalists from entering supermaxes, so the most detailed descriptions come from lawsuits and from former inmates. “When you got out of the van, the first thing you see is this long hallway. There’s no movement in the hallway, this long hallway; it’s like a dream, surreal,” said Anthony Oliphant, 46, who entered the prison system on a first-degree larceny conviction. “They cut you off from everything,” he said. “You’re pretty much a prisoner in your own body.”


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