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New thinking on ‘Supermax’ prisons

Squeezed by shrinking budgets and more inmates, states are moving away from the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude of the 1980s and ’90s and focusing more on drug and alcohol treatment.

Fourteen years ago, Maryland opened its ultramodern Supermax prison, a high-tech fortress to hold the “worst of the worst.” In contrast, a few blocks away stood the Maryland Penitentiary, a dark, gothic, castle-like structure built nearly 200 years ago when inmates were supposed to contemplate their sins in solitude and disgrace.

BUT WHEN Mary Ann Saar, Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services, recently described a Maryland institution as so out of step with modern correctional philosophy that it ought to be razed, she was talking about Supermax.

“First of all, it’s inhumane. Second, it has no program space,” she said. “Nor can it be converted. It was built so hard, we can’t change anything. We’re talking about tons and tons of concrete and steel that would cost a fortune to dig into.”

That kind of talk represents a dramatic change in thinking among corrections officials across the country. Squeezed by shrinking budgets and burgeoning numbers of inmates, states are moving away from the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude of the 1980s and ’90s and focusing more on drug and alcohol treatment, education and job training.


Saar describes Supermax as a relic of an era when rehabilitation programs behind bars were dismissed as coddling of criminals.

“In the 1980s, we began putting people away for a longer period of time, giving them less opportunities for drug treatment and education, and we abolished parole,” said Saar, appointed by new Gov. Robert Ehrlich last January. “But, hey, has it worked? I think an honest person would have to say it hasn’t worked.”

In 2003 alone, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, Kansas earmarked $6.6 million to increase inmate counseling and rehabilitation, and seven states, including Texas, Louisiana and Oregon, reduced sentences and repealed mandatory minimum terms passed in the 1980s and ’90s.

Also, Michigan and at least five other states launched drug courts as an alternative to locking up nonviolent drug offenders. Five states repealed parole regulations deemed overly harsh. And seven states expanded programs to help ex-convicts adjust to life on the outside.

The “get smart” approach to crime, as it is being called, is being driven in part by the bottom line, according to Steve Crawford, a corrections expert with the National Governors Association.


As states abolished parole, lengthened prison terms and established mandatory sentences, the national inmate population reached a record 1.2 million during the 1990s and state spending on corrections doubled.

Elected officials did not seem to mind during the economic boom of the late 1990s, but states next year are expected to face combined deficits of more than $78.4 billion.

“I wouldn’t characterize what’s going on as a shift away from the ‘get tough’ philosophy so much as a case of states doing the math,” Crawford said.

Twenty-two states have inmates detained at the super-maximum security level, according to the National Institute of Corrections. A dozen of those states built Supermax prisons in the 1990s, including a federal Supermax in Denver and institutions in Ohio and Illinois. Officials said each of those institutions — younger than Maryland’s and therefore offering a diluted version of the concept — includes space for treatment.

As Maryland’s Supermax was conceived, the $21 million, 282-bed prison was to hold violent, unmanageable inmates and those with escape records. Inmates were to be held only for short periods until they learned to behave behind bars — as indicated by Supermax’s formal name, the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.


They were held in tiny, 65-square-foot cells for 23 hours a day with an hour out for exercise. The building was equipped with the latest technology for security and monitoring. The architects left no room for programs because the inmates there were, by definition, too violent or uncooperative to take advantage of rehabilitation.

“It’s a question of what you want to accomplish,” said Edward J. Latessa, head of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. “If you want to make criminals suffer, then Supermax is a wonderful place.

“But if you want to reduce recidivism in the most cost-effective way possible, then the research is pretty clear. Like a lot of the approaches of the 1980s, it is as expensive to operate and ineffective.”

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said experience has shown that a Supermax is needed for only a few inmates. Most of the 149 Maryland state prisoners at Supermax could easily be held at the state’s three other maximum-security prisons, he said.


It costs the state an average of $23,000 a year to keep someone behind bars at one of its 30 other institutions. At Supermax, it costs nearly twice as much.

Officials said the bigger challenge may be to convince the public that states can spend money on rehabilitation and still be tough on crime.

“Politicians created this mania in the first place,” said Louisiana state Sen. Donald R. Cravins, who has championed the get-smart approach in his state. “We basically went crazy. When you started looking at what kind of person we were producing it was a dismal, dismal answer. We basically were taking young people and giving them a degree in criminality. Now it’s up to us to convince the public we have a better answer.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.