Vol. 24 No. 11 (November 2014) pp. 524-529

THE GLOBALIZATION OF SUPERMAX PRISONS, by Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed). (Foreword by Loїc Wacquant) New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: The State University – Rutgers University Press, 2013. Hardcover ISBN: 9780813557410. Paperback ISBN 9780813557403.

Reviewed by Meera Lalla, LLM Candidate, University of Witwatersrand, and Candidate Attorney, Wits Law Clinic (South Africa).

THE GLOBALIZATION OF SUPERMAX PRISONS is the missing puzzle piece in the encrypted and often unspoken portrayal of the global realities of the developmental intricacies and constituencies of supermax prisons. Jeffrey Ian Ross, a renowned expert in the field of corrections, policing, political crime, and criminology has always had an analytical take on the issue of supermax prisons. In the 2007 article that appears to be a blueprint for his book, Ross states: “The academic treatments (journal articles or chapters in scholarly books) fall into three groups: general overviews, those that focus on the individuals that are sent to solitary confinement or Supermax prisons, and those that focus on the effects of Supermax prisons” (Ross 2007, p. 61). Thus after many years of in depth research and deliberation with experts in the field of supermax prisons, this book aims to fill the gap and answer some questions that were previously left to speculation.

THE GLOBALIZATION OF SUPERMAX PRISONS, through criminological and penological consideration of the history of supermax prisons, presents readers with an analytical overview of supermax prisons from their inception to the present days. Ross demonstrates, in thirteen chapters the pollination of the concept of supermax prisons from America to nine other countries, where Supermax prisons now stand blossoming and firmly rooted. The Foreword, written by Loїc Wacquant, introduces the topic and the chapters that follow. Wacquant (p. x) relates how supermax prisons have their origins as an American “Peculiar institution” during the 1980’s; due to an escalation in the number of inmates admitted to prisons, prison administration decided to separate the “worst of the worst inmates.” Inmates were classified as such due to dangerous or threatening behavior, and the clear and present threat that they posed to the prison population and wardens. Wacquant (p. x) describes the reasoning as a ‘“no-nonsense” approach, designed to tame recalcitrant and predatory prisoners through intensified isolation. Throughout the book, it is clear that the issue of rehabilitation of prisoners has little place in these concrete fortresses. The book has a clear goal: “to contribute to our understanding of the internal and external politics of punishment in contemporary society” (Loїc Wacquant, 2013 p. xi).

The chosen chapter authors are experts in the field of penology, well versed and well traveled, and their research is sound. The reader can learn more about each author towards the end of the book, where a brief description and their credentials are laid out. One of the authors, Greg Newbold, is a former maximum-security inmate himself, having served a seven and a half year prison sentence for drug trafficking during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Newbold thus provides more than thirty years of experience into the inner workings of the penal system of New Zealand. As a professor of Sociology at the University of Canterbury, he can attest accurately to the legitimacy of the penal revolution in his country (p. 218). The amalgamation of the nine authors’ perspectives provides a good reflection of [*524] facts, and the comparisons contribute to the credibility and importance of the subject of supermax prisons globally.

It bears noting that it would be highly beneficial to the reader to include a list or index of terminology and acronyms. Overlapping concepts in each country have different definitions and should rather be tailored in an index of terminology. This book has failed to adopt the list approach and provides elucidation at the inception of each chapter.

The concept of the supermax prison is uniquely realized in each country studied, as it is influenced by traditions, legislation, criminal activities and the question of necessity. Owing to the very broad interpretation of this definition, numerous other names and practices are adopted in specific countries. The countries’ manifestation, historical development, reasons institution and current practices regarding supermax security are analyzed, compared and contrasted to characterize the globalization of supermax prisons. Various questions are raised in the scope of the debate. Ten chapters “examine specific countries’ attempts to develop supermax prisons and two chapters explore the US experience in the establishment of the high-security prisons in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and at Guantánamo, Cuba. A conclusion “integrates the diverse threads of scholarship presented in this book and makes suggestions for future research and policy in this area” (p. 9).

While the threads of research are diverse, each case study is united by their attempts to answer the following research questions: “(1) What kind of support or opposition to the building of such a facility occurred, and if the opposition failed, why did it not succeed? (2) To what extent was the decision to build a supermax influenced by developments in the United States? (3) Has any controversy surrounding the building of a supermax continued after its construction?” (p. 2). In answering these questions, each author has designed their chapters symmetrically insofar as methodology is concerned, and engage with similar subjects: a historical background of the country’s prison regime, characterizing the prisons that were in place, the events that led to their downfall and replacement by supermax prisions ‒ the development of new technologically advanced prisons, the reasons for building and sustaining supermax prisons, categories of prisoners, description of cells and prison conditions, criteria for entry and exit of supermax prisons, hierarchy of management, effects on prisoners, country-specific extenuating circumstances (race, religion, politics and terrorism), public opinion and human rights criticisms, statistics, comparisons, influences and concluding remarks for the continued existence of supermax prisons. The methodology is suitable to the book’s scope and offers the reader insight into differences between countries' varied versions of the supermax prison. Behind each cell of every chosen country a historical picture is painted to justify the means and ends of the implementation and sustainable development of supermax prisons. This organization means both that each chapter may stand on its own, and they are easy to compare, but at times the book’s key aspects become repetitious, and their overemphasis in each chapter contributes to an anticlimactic conclusion (p. 177). Perhaps if specific issues were honed in on and combined into their own chapters, utilizing a diagram or table to compare and contrast the globalization of supermax prisons, the pollination of the American concept of supermax prisons would be more apparent to the reader.

The book's intended audience, according to Ross, includes legislators, correctional [*525] service personnel, university lecturers and students, criminologists, lawyers, sociologists and even politicians (p. 9). It should suitably serve these readers. That said the book would likely be most useful to a researcher, or any person who has an analytical sense of judgment in this field. It would be more appropriate for a lay audience if it included an annotated alphabetical index of subject matter to allow readers the opportunity to peruse through specific topic areas and to allow scholars to easily reference and provide correct citations for the book. While overall the book is well organized and written with acceptable style and tone, at times, the specific countries' jargon and colloquialisms might daunt readers, forcing them to either concentrate acutely, or face the task of frequently turning back pages to clarify definitions.

Turning to the subject material of the book, it is safe to conclude that there is a palette of colorful topics which intermingle to create an array of unique questions in the mind of the reader. Such topics include “globalization, power, politics, and economics on the decisions to construct and operate supermax prisons in democratic societies and the implications of US policies and practices on two correctional facilities US personnel have run outside of the United States” (p. 9). With the singular focus of the book being supermax prisons, Ross has not ventured off on tangents to explore other major debates concerning restorative justice, remanding detainees, and supermax prisons for women, for example (pp. 17, 32, 61, 71, 76). While each author fulfills Ross’ directives for this book, they have also displayed their ingenious ability to grapple with the extensive literature that exists on this topic (which is sourced on pp. 183-216). Their extensive research crosses borders and serves as a stepping-stone from which to address the issues surrounding supermax prisons.

While no review can accurately depict all of these issues and debates, I will now proceed to analyze briefly the holistic content of the book and highlight some of the many controversial issues raised. From its description of American prisons, the epicenter of all comparisons made in the book, it is clear that since the beginning of the concept of incarceration, solitary confinement and the use of administrative segregation was the fuel of the prison experience (p. 11). Many innovative methods of torture and punishment dated back to the colonial period, wherein “[colonists] viewed the deviant as willful, a sinner, and a captive of the devil” (p. 11). This conception was exacerbated by early-American communities, which used heinous and public forms of punishment such as whippings, hangings, banishment and brandings to maintain control (pp. 11-12). The practice of subjecting inmates to solitary confinement began in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail – the first US jail to have single cells ‒ ostensibly to allow inmates the opportunity to silently reflect on their so-called sins (p. 12).

In the first three chapters, Ross marks milestones in the development of the supermax prison. The reasons for building supermax prisons emerge as he colourfully describes escape ‘war-stories,’ and the implementation of the psychological “them-and-us approach” of correctional officers. Ross deftly paints a picture of a supermax prison cell, emphasizing prison conditions and the infamous twenty-three hour lockdown practice (pp. 13-16). Extraordinary similarities and differences emerge from the chapters. One such example is that criteria for the admission into supermax prisons are not codified in black and white. Admissions are generally made arbitrarily, a definite infringement upon prisoners’ rights (p. 14). Indeed, it appears from the book that there are no [*526] concrete statistics that indicate the exact number of supermax prisoners. However, Ross and his colleagues provide estimates, tables, graphs and what metrics are available throughout the book where applicable (pp. 70, 71, 82, 83, 86, 140). The growing number of supermax prisoners denote the necessity for further research and insight into supermax prisons (p. 14).

Prisoner rights to basic food, privacy, reading material, education and religion are severely curtailed (pp. 16-17). The natural impact of these harsh conditions surface in the mental health of supermax prisoners. Many inmates develop psychological disorders, which are not treated and may eventually lead to suicide (p. 17). The book highlights that general public support, lucrative industrialization of prisons, criminal justice, careerism for correctional officials, and federal governments' involvement are all contributing factors to the creation of supermax prisons. However, the prisoners at ground level know that the real reason for the institution of supermax prisons is punitive and not rehabilitative (pp. 21-23). In the square domain of human rights violations, supermax prisoners’ rights are non-existent. Human Rights Watch and other organizations are questioning these practices' morality and legality, both nationally and internationally. The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights advocate the protection of prisoners’ rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which United States is a signatory) clearly prohibits “torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment” (p. 18). As such, is there a justifiable limitation for the violation of supermax prisoners’ rights? These questions and others are addressed in the country-specific chapters.

Though all of the chapters were similar in their content and approach, I found specific chapters to be more intriguing than others. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the Mexican and South African models, as the authors' style was captivating, and the models they discussed were strongly shaped by cultural heritage and traditions (pp. 35-48, 80-94).

Patrick O’ Day and Thomas O’Connor sketched a very thought- provoking description of supermax prisons in Mexico. They pose an argument that the inverse of Mexicanization could have proliferated instead of Americanization (p. 35). Mexico's unique cultural and political environment shape the prison regime, as evidenced by an in-depth portrayal of a high-security prison situated on the island Islas Marías. This prison held political prisoners and implemented a forced labour regimen (pp. 36-37). Rebels were smuggled onto the island and placed in special cells where the high tide would flood almost up to the ceiling. This torture mechanism was used to procure confessions from the inmates – to crimes both real and imaginary. Execution then occurred, far from public scrutiny. Through these methods, the state created supermax prisons to counteract terrorism and rebels free from public scrutiny (p. 38).

Other unusual practices are revealed in the Mexican model, which are decidedly unique. For example it was not uncommon for families to join inmates and live on the island, where a ”normal” household could be run, with inmates roaming freely, subject only to three daily roll calls. This model clearly fosters rehabilitation (p. 39). Another odd practice is that of conjugal visitations which form part of a prisoner’s life in Mexico (p. 43). Bribery and corruption are also distinguishing features of prisons of [*527] Mexico; corrupt correctional officers aid escapes and the availability of sex, and guns are often smuggled into cells. Drug cartels are even run within prison walls; drug traffickers, incarcerated at these prisons, often engage in the murder of opposing gang leaders and members (pp. 42-44). It is apparent that while these prisons resemble supermax institutions, the Mexican culture, longstanding customs, and prison traditions have influenced – and in some ways corrupted – the source system. Thus, the chapter gives the reader a sense of how the American model adapts to different social and political environments.

South Africa's history of Apartheid and racial violence and alarming crime rates contributed to the establishment of two supermax prisons (p. 80). In Chapter 7, Fran Buntman and Lukas Muntinghon illustrate the various controversial issues which plague the penal regimes of constitutional democracies. The predicaments that South Africa faces are common ones among constitutional governments – weighing prisoners' rights against the need for security, and attempting genuine rehabilitation in an environment tainted by overcrowding, gangsterism, bribery, and corruption (pp. 83-92).

By its very nature, the concept of a supermax prison is antithetical to that of human rights, and the constitutionality of these institutions is morally questionable on levels above and beyond the International Covenants. This issue has been touched on in the book; however, human rights attorneys who read this work may have severe criticisms leveled against the depth of which the subject is addressed. Each chapter merely skims through the impact of supermax prisons on prisoners’ rights (pp. 17, 18, 34, 47, 63-65, 77-96, 104, 132, 148, 158 181). In this respect the book has remained diplomatic and somewhat neutral in its treatment of the notion of prisoners’ rights in supermax prisons.

The tone of the last two chapters, however, is arguably more intense and involved, as the authors explore the most extreme of supermax prisons. Terrorism, blasphemy and torture are the key characteristics of Guantanamo prisons, according to Dawn L. Rothe in Chapter 12 (pp. 145-159). The brutality revealed in the Abu Ghraib model, as portrayed by Rothe and Ross’s chapter 13, pushes the bounds of human comprehension. It is enough to leave one speechless (pp. 160-176). The books preceding chapters build to this conclusion – that even the American concept of supermax prisons is contaminated in practice by unspeakable abuse. The book leaves one thinking about the repercussions of supermax institutions, as shaped by socioeconomics and politics, on prisoners’ rights.
It is safe to conclude that the problem of dangerous criminals is faced globally, and these nine countries (others include Australia, Brazil, Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand) evidence the need for the supermax regime. Even so, the need for a balance between the power of prison officials and the rights that prisoners have as enshrined in constitutional and legal tenets, is equally evident. Ross has not come to this determination in his concluding remarks. As noted above, the contributions are largely analytical; while they offer a fine first step in identifying and defining a type of modern mass incarceration, there is on the whole little comparative analysis. In the summation chapter, the conclusions are perfunctory and lack conclusive detail. No doubt this will leave some readers feeling that Ross may have rushed his conclusions, and thereby failed to do justice to the extensive research that his colleagues provided. The conclusion is thus [*528] a disappointing anti-climax to a book that might have provided worthwhile recommendations for the future, given the extent of previous chapters' comparative analysis.

This book illustrates the rise and fall of supermax prisons across countries, and its chapters illuminate the topic as one of concern. However, the reader is ultimately left to draw his or her own conclusions.


Ross Jeffrey Ian. 2007 "Social Science and Public Policy: Supermax Prisons." March/April (2007) Volume 44 (3) SOCIETY 60-64.

© Copyright 2014 by the author, Meera Lalla.