Supermax prisons and the trajectory of exception

Published date25 August 2009
Date25 August 2009
AuthorLorna A. Rhodes
Lorna A. Rhodes
Supermax prisons have proliferated in the United States since their
contemporary introduction in the early 1980s and have developed a more
recent trajectory in the war prison. Drawing on the work of Giorgio
Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman as well as ethnographic research in
Washington state prisons, this article considers the internal dynamics
and history of the supermax prison in terms of bare life, exception,
indifference, and ‘‘choice.’’ Contradictory relationships within and around
the supermax are contextualized in terms of the extreme and techno-
logically sophisticated methods that make up contemporary incarceration.
Thirty years ago prisons appeared as a central feature of modernity, but one
that would inevitably give way to other forms. This was the case when
predictions were made about the future of incarceration and also when
‘‘the prison’’ was considered as a model for modern society. Whether
prisons were believed not to work at all, or to work so well that a general
internalization of discipline would render them obsolete, they were not
expected to radically increase in number and population. In fact Gilles
Deleuze argued in 1992 that ‘‘We are in a generalized crisis in relation to
all the environments of enclosure prison, hospital, factory . . . everyone
Special Issue: New Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 47, 193–218
Copyright r2009 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1108/S1059-4337(2009)0000047009
knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their
expiration periods’’ (1992, p. 4).
If this is the prison’s expiration period, then it is not only stretching into
the foreseeable future but taking the form of an evolution and intensifica-
tion of enclosure. Most strikingly, the development of the contemporary
supermax over the past 30 years – in parallel with massive growth in prisons
as whole – suggests that a new form has emerged. The supermax or control
prison is a specialized technology designed to isolate and ‘‘manage’’ that
fraction of the incarcerated population considered the highest security risk.
A national survey that is now 10 years old found almost 60 of these facilities,
either freestanding or as control units within larger prison complexes
(National Institute of Corrections, 1997). Although the extent of growth
since is obscured by problems of definition, lack of information provided by
prison systems, and the absence of any systematic study, it is clear that the
supermax has largely replaced older forms of segregation to become a taken-
for-granted element in the state and federal penal landscape.
Supermax confinement appeared throughout the 1990s largely as a matter
of domestic practice, with some exporting of the model to other countries
(e.g., Boin, 2001). But with the emergence of the war prison, the practice of
extreme confinement inside the United States has taken on a new aspect as
the prehistory, or condition of possibility, for regimes of incarceration that
have severed any connection to the national criminal justice system. The
2004 announcement that Abu Ghraib would be replaced by a presumably
more acceptable supermax suggests the extent to which the current use of
the supermax model occurs in the context of extensive overlap between
domestic and military practices (Hutchinson, 2007;Kelber, 2004;Gordon,
2006). Untethered from the specifics of criminal justice policy, these
prisons emerge as exclusionary projects that do not depend on domestic
political and social conditions for their proliferation. As Brown notes,
‘‘The institutional similarities between Abu Ghraib and the rise of the
supermax prison mark a particularly dangerous pattern in the exploitation
of punishment . .. the logic of custody and incapacitation at home [is]
converging with the global application of detention by the United States’’
(2005, pp. 986, 989).
My intent here is to explore the contradictory terrain that comes into view
if we examine these supermax ‘‘enclosures’’ as social settings whose history
and cultural logic shed light on their capacity for expansion.
I begin by
describing the supermax as productive of what the philosopher Giorgio
Agamben calls bare life. This term highlights the process of ‘‘stripping
down’’ – of constituting the prisoner as nothing but his ‘‘bare,’’ biological,

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