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California Journal of Politics and Policy

Managing Editor: Lubenow, Gerald

Ed. by Citrin, Jack / Cain, Bruce / Noll, Roger

The Origins of and Need to Control Supermax Prisons

1Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and of Law, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

Corresponding author: Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and of Law, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

Citation Information: California Journal of Politics and Policy. Volume 5, Issue 2, Pages 146–167, ISSN (Online) 1944-4370, ISSN (Print) 2194-6132, DOI: 10.1515/cjpp-2013-0009, April 2013

Publication History

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Supermaxes are prisons designed to impose long-term solitary confinement. Supermax prisoners spend 23 h or more per day in windowless cells. Technology, like centrally controlled automated cell doors and fluorescent lights that are never turned off, allows prisoners to be under constant surveillance, while minimizing all human contact. California built two of the first and largest supermaxes in 1988 and 1989. Corcoran State Prison and Pelican Bay State Prison, which together house more than 3000 prisoners in supermax conditions, were two of 23 new prisons built in California during the late twentieth century era of rapidly increasing incarceration rates and prison capacities. This article will address three stages of supermax operation in California: (1) the early, tumultuous years of total administrative discretion and egregious abuses; (2) the middle years of controlled expansion and entrenchment of supermax use; and (3) the recent events and reforms initiated following a hunger strike in California’s segregation units in the summer of 2011. The history of California’s use of supermax prisons reveals both the role of administrative discretion in shaping the initial design and day-to-day operation of the institutions, as well as the perverse incentives that made these institutions increasingly invisible and decreasingly governable. Supermaxes, then, serve as an important piece of the story of mass incarceration in California, a microcosm of the larger trends in administration, law, and politics, which have created the social and economic behemoth of a state prison system facing Californians today.

Keywords: California prison system; correctional institutions; penology; prisons; solitary confinement; supermax

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