The theory and practice of supermax prisons

Daniel P. Mears, Michael D. Reisig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Over the last two decades, super-maximum custody (or 'supermax) prisons have become increasingly common throughout the American correctional landscape. Although these institutions can be justified using a variety of arguments (e.g. retribution), one of the most commonly used rationalizations is that they promote higher levels of prison order throughout the systems in which they are used. Because of the lack of direct empirical evidence to support this claim, we refer to this argument as the 'system-wide order' conjecture. In this essay, we explore the different pathways through which supermax prisons may achieve system-wide order. Our analysis suggests that the conceptual foundation upon which the system-wide order conjecture rests is unstable, and that empirical research is needed to resolve debates about the merits of supermax prisons in contributing to order in prison systems. We conclude by identifying critical research gaps that must be addressed to better understand the effects of this high-cost correctional approach.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-57
Number of pages25
JournalPunishment and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Correctional policy
  • Prison order
  • Prisons
  • Punishment
  • Supermax

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Law


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