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Supermax and Prison Regimes in the UK Essay

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Updated: Jul 2nd, 2020


Prison regimes have evolved over centuries owing to the reforms in the criminal justice system. The recognition of human dignity and rights has prompted reforms in criminal justice systems across the world. Prior to the emergence and refinement of human rights in various legal jurisdictions, prisoners had no dignity and rights in that criminal justice systems accepted torture as a form of punishment and sentence. Given that different countries have undertaken unique reforms in their criminal justice systems, they have employed different psychological theories, sentencing philosophies, and policies in their respective prison regimes. Comparative analysis of Supermax regime in the United States and the prison regime in the United Kingdom indicates some disparities and similarities in terms of psychological theories, sentencing philosophies, and policies. Smith (2006) states that solitary confinement is an important feature of Supermax in the United States. In contrast, the prison regime in the United Kingdom mainly comprises open and closed prisons, which give inmates freedom to interact. Essentially, prison regimes have different correctional approaches, which aim at preventing crimes and rehabilitating criminals effectively. Given that diverse prison regimes exist, this essay aims to compare and contrast Supermax prison regime and prison regime in the United Kingdom by examining aspects such as the nature of regimes, psychological theories, policies, philosophies, psychological effects, and psychological implications.

Comparison and Contrast of Prison Regimes

Prison Regimes

The prison regimes of Supermax and prisons in the United Kingdom are similar in that they classify criminals, according to their age, gender, crimes committed, and the risk they pose to the prisoners, prison guards, and society. This classification of inmates has significant psychological implications because it influences social interactions among inmates. Prisoners, who pose considerable risk to others and are likely to escape, are kept in lonely cells. Forsythe (2004) states that the restriction of interaction and communication among prisoners reinforce loneliness “thereby rendering the prisoners docile and tractable, prone to remorse, and amenable to rehabilitation” (p. 759). Such confinement is similar to Supermax in the United States. However, the confinement of prisoners in Supermax is very stringent and torturous.

Although the prison regime in the United Kingdom aims to perform similar corrections, the conditions of these prisons differ. Supermax offers maximum security to violent and dangerous prisoners, who pose high risks to other prisoners, guards, and people in society. The major functions of Supermax are to confine, incarcerate, punish, and control prisoners. According to Smith (2006), Supermax commenced in 1983 when violent prisoners killed prison guards in Marion Penitentiary, which is situated in Illinois. Following the deaths of the prison guards, the criminal justice system decided to keep violent prisoners in cells where they could neither interact with other prisoners nor perform any activities. Smith (2006) describes conditions of Supermax as a 23-hour solitary confinement per day in a small room under strict surveillance and deprivation of social interaction for an indefinite period. However, prisoners only have one hour in a day to get out, exercise, and enjoy the ambience. Confinement in such an environment does not only protect prison guards, but it also brings about behaviour modification of the confined prisoners.

In contrast to the conditions of Supermax, prisons in the United Kingdom comprise closed and open regimes. Closed regimes are for prisoners, who are violent, prone to escape, and pose considerable risks to other prisoners, prison guards, and people in the society. Comparatively, open regimes are for prisoners, who pose minimal risks and are unlikely to escape. Genders and Player (2013) argue that prison policy of the United Kingdom is not only sensitive to the risks, which prisoners pose to the society, but it is also sensitive to the negative impacts of the rehabilitation programmes. In this view, closed and open regimes allow progressive rehabilitation of prisoners. Under the closed regime, prisoners have the liberty to interact with others and perform numerous activities within the confines of the prison. The presence of liberty contrasts that of Supermax, where prisoners have no opportunity to interact or perform any activities. Hence, it suffices to state that the prison regime in the United Kingdom offers significant freedom when compared to Supermax.

Psychological Theories

Psychological theories support the existence of Supermax prisons in the prison system because they control prisoners. Solitary confinement has far-reaching effects on the psyche, and thus, transform the behaviour of prisoners from being violent to calm. Bersot and Arrigo (2010) assert that the theoretical basis for solitary confinement is that it physically isolates violent inmates from other inmates and prison guards, and restrains violent behaviours that they exhibit. Essentially, given that Supermax prisons are small units that allow one prisoner to stay alone, they keep prisoners within a defined space where they cannot harm other inmates and prison guards. The small units restrain violent behaviours for prisoners stay in solitary units where they cannot interact with potential victims of violence; hence, restraining their violent behaviours. Sensory deprivation is another theoretical basis that supports the use of solitary confinement in the prison system. Vasiliades (2005) explains that sensory deprivation occurs in solitary confinement in that prisoners lose their common senses, and thus, they become confused. In this view, prisoners modify their behaviours according to the stimuli that they receive in Supermax.

The psychological theory behind closed and open prison regimes is the social learning theory. The prison regimes of the United Kingdom believe in restorative justice, which rehabilitates prisoners, unlike Supermax that believes in control corrections. Essentially, liberty that prisoners have in the open and closed regimes in the United Kingdom creates a favourable social environment where prisoners can interact freely and adopt values that are in society. Through social interactions, prisoners easily acquire new values and become amenable to rehabilitation. Mantle, Fox, and Dhami (2005) state that, “restorative justice is viewed as a humanitarian approach that brings to the foreground ambitions of forgiveness, healing, reparation, and reintegration” (p. 3). These ambitions are evident in the prison regime of the United Kingdom because it aims to rehabilitate prisoners by creating a favourable prison environment for reparation, healing, and reintegration into society.

Sentencing Philosophies and Outcomes

The sentencing philosophies of Supermax regime and prison regime in the United Kingdom are different and have different outcomes. Evidently, deterrence, incapacitation, and retributive philosophies are dominant in Supermax regime. The deterrence philosophy holds that stiff punishment of prisoners prevents them from perpetuating the same crimes and deters others from committing crimes. In this case, harsh punishment is apparent in Supermax because it entails solitary confinement for a period of 23-hours per day for an indefinite duration. Incapacitation philosophy is also apparent because confinement of a prisoner in a secure place weakens their capacity to escape and commit other crimes such as violence in prison. The retributive philosophy is evident as Supermax classifies prisoners according to their crimes and risks they pose, and thus, offers punishment that is commensurate with their classification. The period that one spends in Supermax is proportional to the nature of crimes committed.

Relatively, the prison regime in the United Kingdom appears to apply retributive, reparation, and rehabilitative philosophies in the prison system. Mantle, Fox, and Dhami (2005) observe that “mix of retribution, rehabilitation, and reparation characterise” criminal justice system of the United Kingdom (p. 9). Given that the criminal justice system sentence prisoners, according to the nature of crimes they commit, it applies the philosophy of retribution. Regarding the philosophy of reparation, the criminal justice system of the United Kingdom allows prisoners to compensate their victims, society, and government for the crimes committed. The most important philosophy of the prison regime in the United Kingdom is rehabilitation. Both the closed and open prison regimes are rehabilitative for they transform behaviours of prisoners so they can easily integrate into society.

Comparative analysis of the outcomes associated with the sentencing philosophies of Supermax and prisons in the United Kingdom shows significant differences. Solitary confinement of prisoners, according to the philosophies of deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution, have negative impacts on prisoners. Vasiliades (2005) argues that solitary confinement in Supermax has negative psychological effects, which negate the essence of the prison system in the criminal justice system. Fundamentally, negative psychological effects outweigh the benefits of deterring crime. The Committee against Torture (CAT and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) consider solitary confinement as torture because it violates human rights and dignity (Smith 2006). Thus, the sentencing philosophy of Supermax does not only have negative psychological effects, but it also violates the rights of prisoners as humans, who deserve liberty and dignity.

Sentencing philosophies that the prison regime in the United Kingdom applies effectively to reduce recidivism because they aim at rehabilitating prisoners. Genders and Player (2013) state that rehabilitative programmes in the United Kingdom focus on the interests of the prisoners for they enable them to transform their behaviours and integrate into society. Since these sentencing philosophies are effective, it implies that a significant number of prisoners do not perpetuate their criminal behaviours when released into society. Mantle, Fox, and Dhami (2005) argue that restorative justice in the United Kingdom employs rehabilitative and retributive philosophies in reducing the rate of recidivism among released prisoners. Therefore, it is apparent that the outcome of sentencing in the United Kingdom is better than the outcome of Supermax in the United States.

Psychological Effects

Prison regimes, sentencing philosophies, and policies in Supermax and prisons in the United Kingdom have different psychological effects. Psychologists, sociologists, and criminologists have undertaken numerous studies to examine the effects of solitary confinement among prisoners. As a major feature of Supermax regime and rarely common among open and closed prison regimes in the United Kingdom, solitary confinement has massive psychological effects. Human rights activists have termed solitary confinement as human torture, which violates human rights and dignity. Smith (2006) state that solitary confinement has psychological effects because it causes mental disorders such as dementia, hallucinations, and monomania. These mental disorders prevent prisoners from rehabilitating properly and integrating into society.

Solitary confinement is usually mental torture, which deprives prisoners their senses and interaction with their environment. Sensory deprivation makes prisoners lose their senses and become dumb. Forsythe (2004) argues that loneliness increases anxiety, depression, anger, paranoia, cognitive disturbances, psychosis, suicidal feelings, and hallucinations. In this case, instead of prisoners rehabilitating well for them to assimilate into society, they develop anti-social traits, which increases their capacity to commit other crimes. Smith (2006) holds that suicidal feelings, insanity, and manic outbursts are common among prisoners in solitary confinement. Hence, ample evidence proves that Supermax has negative psychological effects on the prisoners, and therefore, it is not an effective approach of rehabilitating prisoners in the prison system.

Comparatively, open and closed prison regimes in the United Kingdom have no significant psychological effects when compared to Supermax. According to a recent study done in England, the length of sentence and high-security prison are some of the risk factors that predispose prisoners to self-harm and subsequent suicide (Hawton et al. 2010). These findings imply that the nature of the prison environment determines the occurrence and extent of psychological effects, which make prisoners commit suicide or experience mental disorders. In this case, it is evident that negative psychological effects are present in both Supermax and prisons in the United Kingdom because they have common policies, philosophies, and prison environment, but the extent of their occurrence differs. Evidently, Supermax has massive psychological effects, which cause mental disorders and make prisoners not amenable to rehabilitation.

Psychological Implications

Given that Supermax and prison regimes in the United Kingdom have psychological effects, it implies that criminal justice systems need to develop policies that require assessment and determination of the psychological effects of diverse correctional approaches. The policies should categorically state that the psychological effects of a given correctional approach should not exceed its benefits for it to be effective in rehabilitating prisoners. Assessment of Supermax indicates that it is a torturous approach, which is not only ineffective in rehabilitating prisoners but also destructive because it causes serious mental disorders. The mental disorders such as dementia, psychosis, depression, and suicidal tendencies make prisoners develop anti-social behaviours and complicate their lives instead of rehabilitating them. Fundamentally, the criminal justice system should apply suitable sentencing philosophies and come up with appropriate correctional approaches that enable prisoners to improve their lives. In this case, the practical implication of the policies is that the assessment of prisoners requires consideration of acquired mental disorders. Psychiatrists need to devise ways of enabling prisoners to overcome mental disorders associated with their imprisonment before releasing them to assimilate into society.


Comparison and contrast of Supermax and prisons in the United Kingdom indicate some disparities in correctional approaches. While Supermax is a high-security prison, which tortures prisoners by confining them in solitary cells, prisons in the United Kingdom comprise of high and low-security prisons termed as closed and open prisons respectively. The sentencing philosophies and policies are different in that Supermax mainly focuses on deterrence philosophy, while prisons in the United Kingdom focus on rehabilitative philosophy. The outcomes of these philosophies are quite different as Supermax is ineffective in correction, whereas prisons in the United Kingdom are effective in the rehabilitation of prisoners. Supermax is an ineffective correctional approach because it causes a number of mental disorders. The prisons in the United Kingdom are effective because they reduce the rates of recidivism and have minimal psychological effects. Therefore, as an implication, the criminal justice system should disallow the application of correctional approaches like Supermax because it has negative psychological effects on prisoners and hampers their rehabilitation.


Bersot, H & Arrigo, B 2010, ‘Inmate mental health, solitary confinement, and cruel and unusual punishment: An ethical and justice Policy Inquiry’, Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-82.

Forsythe, B 2004, ‘Loneliness and cellular confinement in English prions 1878-1921’, British Journal of Criminology, vo. 44, no. 5, pp. 759-770.

Genders, E & Player, E 2013, ‘Rehabilitation, risk management, and prisoner’s rights’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, vol. 14, no. 4, 434-457.

Hawton, K, Linsell, L, Adeniji, T, Sriaslan, A & Fazel, S 2010, ‘Self-hram in prison in England and Wales: An Epidemiological study of prevalence, risk factors, clustering and subsequent suicide’, The Lancet, vol. 383, no. 29, pp. 1147-1154.

Mantle, G, Fox, D & Dhami, M 2005, ‘Restorative justice and three individual theories of crime’, Internet Journal of Criminology, vol.1, no. 1, 1-36.

Smith, P 2006, ‘The effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates: A brief history and review of the literature’, Crime and Justice, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 441-528.

Vasiliades, E 2005, ‘Solitary confinement and international human rights: Why the U.S prison system fails global standards’, American University International Law Review, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 71-98.

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