Supermax Prisons: What's the Theoretical Foundation?

Daniel P. Mears, The Urban Institute
Michael D. Reisig, Michigan State University

Supermax prisons have proliferated during the past two decades, yet the theoretical foundation for their use remains largely ambiguous. Whether due to the fact that they are intended to acheive many goals or to some other reason, the result has been the absence of well-articulated theories of how supermax prisons can contribute to specific impacts. Such theories are necessary to provide guidance about the underlying causal logic of supermax prisons and how best to test whether they "work". Departing from these observations, we dientify several leading goals of supermax prisons and discuss and develop theoretical explanations of how these goals and related impacts are achieved. We then identify critical research gaps that must be addressed if we are to provide adequate explanations and tests of the effectiveness of supermax prisons. we conclude by discussing the policy implications of failing to develop coherent theoretical accounts of how supermax prisons contribute to particular goals.

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Updated 05/20/2006