The Rise of Supermax Confinement

Although the widespread use of supermax confinement is a relatively recent phenomenon, early American prison administrators frequently used solitary confinement, a technique that supermax prisons employ today. In the 1700s and early 1800s, prison administrators often housed inmates in single cells in order to isolate them from the ills of society and all forms of human contact. In the mid to late 1800s, prison administrators limited the use of solitary confinement due to the harsh effects isolation had on inmates (e.g., development of mental illnesses) . Scholars remain divided about which prison constitutes the first true supermax facility. Chase Riveland and Ward and Werlich suggested that the Alcatraz penitentiary, located outside San Francisco, California, was the first supermax prison, while Stephen Richards and R. D. King argued that the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, was the first long-term lockdown facility.


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Alcatraz was opened by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1934, and it operated for 29 years. During its operation, Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious offenders (e.g., Al Capone) in the United States. However, there are several key differences between Alcatraz and modern supermax facilities. For instance, Alcatraz did not house problematic inmates who violated institutional rules, but instead imprisoned hardened criminals and escape risk inmates. The rules at Alcatraz also allowed inmates to work outside their cells and spend time in the exercise yard with other inmates. Many modern supermax facilities do not permit inmates outside of their cells for work or allow them to interact with other inmates. However, the rules at Alcatraz were strict and vigorously enforced. Primarily due to the cost of operating Alcatraz, the facility was closed in 1963.

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