What is a Supermax Prison? - Definition, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Rachelle Fobbs

Rachelle has a MS in Forensic Science. She has extensive crime lab experience which includes training and testimony as an expert witness.

In this lesson, you will learn about a supermax prison and how it differs from other facilities. The pros and cons of supermax prisons will also be discussed.

Imagine spending 22-23 hours a day in a 7x12 foot cell made entirely of concrete. A small window offers minimal natural light, but you have no contact with the outside world, only going outside to a room slightly larger than your cell for a few hours a week. This is typical for an inmate in a supermax prison.

What is a Supermax Prison?

Supermax is a term for maximum security and describes the most secure prisons and prison units that house the most dangerous criminals. There is only one federal maximum security prison in the U.S., The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADX located in Florence, Colorado. There are numerous maximum security state prisons or prisons with maximum security units within them, also known as segregation, lockdown, or solitary confinement. Inmates placed in segregation typically have exhibited dangerous or violent behavior and/or have violated rules within the prison.


The ADX is referred to as the Alcatraz of the Rockies and it is home to over 400 of the most dangerous and violent offenders in the federal prison system. The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and several other terrorists are serving time at the ADX. Others are transferred to ADX from other prisons after they were involved in an assault of another inmate or prison staff, or attempt to escape a facility.

Conditions at ADX are essentially full-time solitary confinement and limit the inmates' contact with each other and with staff. The windows and recreational areas have limited views to minimize escape attempts. When the prisoners do leave their cells, they are escorted by multiple guards and wear handcuffs, leg irons, and stomach chains at all times.

ADX in Florence, Colorado

State Prisons

Most state prisons in the U.S. have maximum security units within them, where inmates are kept in segregation or solitary confinement. In 2014, Amnesty International estimated there were over 40 states with these facilities and 25,000 prisoners housed in maximum security housing. When you include inmates that spend shorter stays in segregation due to punishment, there are approximately 80,000 inmates in maximum security housing on a daily basis.

Benefits of Maximum Security Housing


A major goal of keeping prisoners in supermax facilities is to protect other inmates and staff, since most inmates in maximum security have a history of violent and dangerous behavior. Many have been involved in fights in prison, and some have even killed other inmates or staff members. Keeping dangerous offenders confined and secure may also help the community feel safer.


Along with protecting prisoners and staff from dangerous inmates, maximum security units allow the prison to have more order and control over troublesome inmates and more closely monitor their behavior and actions. By placing them in secured housing and restricting their movements, the goal is to inhibit their ability for future violent and disruptive behavior.


Another potential benefit to supermax prisons is a lower recidivism rate, or how likely inmates are to commit crimes and return to prison after their release. Many prison officials feel that the threat of being in solitary confinement or maximum security housing will deter inmates from committing crimes once they complete their sentence. It is also thought to improve behavior within the prison, causing most inmates to stay out of trouble to avoid being placed in segregation or solitary confinement.

Disadvantages of Maximum Security Housing

Inhumane Conditions

The most common complaint regarding solitary confinement is that it violates basic human rights, and can even be classified as a form of torture or cruel and unusual punishment. Many people feel that no matter what horrific crime an inmate has committed, being locked in a cell 22-23 hours a day with no human contact is denying them their basic human rights. Human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and United Nations Committee against torture have been extremely critical of the conditions of supermax prisons and the treatment of inmates. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against supermax facilities regarding the inhumane conditions.

Outside door to a solitary confinement cell
Door to solitary confinement

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