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Most Downloaded Articles
- How Geopolitics Cleaved California's Republicans and United Its Democrats by Kousser, Thad
- Power to the People: Checking Special Interests in California by Gordon Fisher, Stacy B./ Nalder, Kimberly L. and Lesenyie, Matthew
- Institutional Causes of California's Budget Problem by Cain, Bruce E. and Noll, Roger
- Why California’s ‘Three Strikes’ Fails as Crime and Economic Policy, and What to Do by Parker, Robert Nash
- The Impact of Direct Democracy on Governance: A Replication and Extension by Lac, Ly T. and Lascher, Edward L.
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
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
- Published Online:
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.