Solitary Confinement and Supermax Prisons: A Necessary Evil or Necessarily Evil?

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Date(s) - 20 Feb 2014
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Room E457, Menzies Building - Monash University

Dr Sharon Shalev, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

Solitary confinement is one of the most extreme, yet enduring, prison practices, dating back to the 19th century. As personal accounts and the medical literature throughout its history testify, it is also one of the most painful forms of confinement which can legally be imposed on prisoners and detainees. And yet it is routinely used in prisons across the globe, and, in the last quarter of a century, has enjoyed a massive revival, particularly in the US, in the form of the so-called ‘supermax ‘ prisons. These large, high-tech prisons, are especially designed and specifically dedicated to the long term isolation of hundreds of prisoners each, and are currently estimated to confine more than 25,000 human beings in conditions of strict solitary confinement and abject deprivation. Officially intended as a last resort solution for the safe custody of dangerous prisoners labelled as the ‘worst of the worst’, in practice these prisons also hold many real and alleged gang members, petty criminals and some of the most vulnerable people in the prison system, including people with learning disabilities and those who suffer mental illness. They also hold a disproportionate number of people from racial and ethnic minorities. This paper examines the supermax phenomenon and some of its costs and consequences, and asks what lessons prison systems across the world can, and should, learn from the American experience with large scale prolonged solitary confinement.

Dr Shalev is a human rights worker and a criminologist. She is a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, and an Associate of the International Centre for Prison Studies. She is also a Fellow of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics. Over the last two decades her key research interest has been the use of solitary confinement in prisons, in particular the American ‘supermax’ prisons, and she has authored various publications on the subject, including the Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, a practitioner’s guide to the health effects of solitary confinement and to human rights and professional standards relating to its use. Her book, Supermax: controlling risk through solitary confinement (Willan, 2009) was awarded the British Society of Criminology’s Book Prize for 2010. More recently, she has worked on a research project entitled “Excluding the excluded: European practices of solitary confinement, past and present”. She is currently researching the use of segregation in England and Wales whilst continuing to manage the informational website

Thursday 20thFebruary 1-2pm, Room E457 Menzies Building, Monash University Clayton RSVP Tuesday 18th February

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