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One of the justifications for supermax prisons is that retributive justice calls for it (Mears #038; Resig, 2006). However, another is that they promote higher levels of prison order throughout the systems in which they are used (Mears #038; Resig, 2006, p. 33). In other words, they are said to reduce prison misconduct. The problem with the latter justification is that there is not enough empirical evidence to support the argument. For one, the system-wide order conjecture upon which the argument rests is a shaky foundation, according to Mears #038; Reisig (2006, p. 48). Supermax prisons are high-cost and also complex, and many gaps in understanding how they work and what they actually achieve still persist. The authors posit that it is possible that supermax prisons actually contribute to system-wide disorder rather than mitigate it. Without more empirical research on the matter, however, the debate will not be settled. One thing is clear, nonetheless: the cost of maintaining supermax prisons is quite high, while the benefits are dubious.
I would argue that alternatives to supermax facilities should be explored, particularly those that favor treatment and behavioral programs, as many people who are convicted are really in need of mental health treatmentnot imprisonment, or not just imprisonment. Because so few actually receive treatment while incarcerated, recidivism rates never decline, and the problem at the root of crime is never fully addressed. From a retributive justice standpoint, supermax prisons may make sense. But from a restorative justice or a rehabilitative justice standpoint, they make very little sense. The assumption underlying the use of supermax prisons is that there is no better way to manage unruly prisoners. Yet, as the authors point out, there is empirical research in existence that suggests alternative approaches, such as providing mental health programs, can work to reduce prison misconduct.
Mears, D. P., #038; Reisig, M. D. (2006). The theory and practice of supermax prisons.
Punishment #038; Society,8(1), 33-57.
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