Press Releases

New York City Bar Association Urges Reform of Supermax Confinement Facilities in U.S. Prisons


Eric Friedman
(212) 382-6754

Kathryn Inman
(212) 382-6656

New York City Bar Association Urges Reform of Supermax Confinement Facilities in U.S. Prisons

New York, NY, October 5, 2011 – The extensive use of supermax confinement in the United States prison system violates basic human rights and is in need of reform, argues a report issued by the New York City Bar Association.

The report, produced by the City Bar’s Committee on International Human Rights, details supermax confinement in the United States and analyzes how the practice is treated under U.S. and international law, finding that in many cases the practice “constitutes torture under international law according to international jurisprudence and cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.”

The term supermax refers to “new, specialized segregation facilities.” The key element of these facilities is isolation, with prisoners spending up to 22.5 hours a day locked alone in small, often windowless cells, sealed by solid steel doors, where they are largely cut off from human contact. Access to items such as books, magazines, and radio are usually denied or restricted. There are an estimated 80,000 persons being held in supermax facilities or isolation units in the American prison system.

The report also examines the limited role of the courts in regulating supermax confinement. Although the courts have documented many of the inhumane conditions of supermax facilities, and despite numerous studies demonstrating that supermax confinement causes psychological damage, the courts have typically stopped short of finding the practice unconstitutional or illegal, no matter how severe or extreme. “As long as a prisoner receives adequate food and shelter, the extreme sensory deprivation that characterizes supermax confinement will, under current case law, almost always be considered within the bounds of permissible treatment,” notes the report.

As the incarcerated population dramatically increased over the past three decades, supermax confinement became one method to address problems associated with overcrowding, such as health, safety, and the maintenance of order. “The unmitigated suffering caused by supermax confinement, however, cannot be justified by the argument that it is an effective means to deal with difficult prisoners,” states the report. “The issue, we believe, is not whether supermax achieves its purposes or is effective at controlling and punishing unruly inmates. Instead, the question is whether the vast archipelago of American supermax facilities, in which some prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely for years, should be tolerated as consistent with fundamental principles of justice.”

“Supermax confinement has become so embedded in the culture of prison administration that it will take a significant effort to reverse this abhorrent practice,” notes the report, which makes the following recommendations for reform to supermax confinement facilities:

• The provision on the PLRA providing that inmate plaintiffs may not recover damages “without prior showing of physical injury” should be repealed;
• Prisoners with serious mental illness should never be subjected to supermax confinement;
• Conditions of extreme isolation and restriction should be imposed only when an extremely serious threat to prison safety has been established, and even in such circumstances supermax confinement should be for the shortest time possible and inmates should be afforded due process, and an opportunity to contest the confinement and appeal;
• Any form of segregated housing should provide meaningful forms of mental, physical and social stimulation; and
• A national task force should be established to promptly report on the numbers of inmates being held in supermax confinement in state and federal prisons and their conditions of confinement, and to propose further legislative and administrative reforms.

The full report is available at

About the New York City Bar Association
The New York City Bar Association (, since its founding in 1870, has been dedicated to maintaining the high ethical standards of the profession, promoting reform of the law and providing service to the profession and the public.  The Association continues to work for political, legal and social reform, while implementing innovative means to help the disadvantaged.  Protecting the public’s welfare remains one of the Association’s highest priorities.