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Lorna A. Rhodes Supermax as a Technology of Punishment SU PER M A X P R IS O N S ARE O FT E N DE SC R IB E D AS “ H IG H T E C H .” * OBSERVERS seem to m ean two things by this. First that these “prisons w ithin pris­ ons” are a technology in themselves: hard-edged and brightly lit, the fortress-like superm ax clearly signals its specialized purpose of isola­ tion and control. The second is that superm ax prisons rely heavily on specialized, relatively new technologies: com puterized systems produce new forms of intensive surveillance while special team s arm ed w ith electronic shields m aintain control over prisoners. But as Leo Marx observed several years ago in this journal, “tech­ nology is a hazardous concept” (1997: 965). The term has come to refer not only to specific devices or inventions (that is, the internal combus­ tion engine), but also to w hat he calls “com plex sociotechnological systems” (the vast array of equipm ent, corporate operations, workers, and institutional changes unfolding from the automobile). Thus “tech­ nology narrowly conceived is only one part of a com plex social and institutional m atrix. . . . Technology [also emerged as] a nam e for these ambiguous, messy, incoherent, new form ations” (1997: 979-80, original emphasis). We need to see the technology of the superm ax prison in these term s if we are to understand its effects. Like the automobile, this type of prison is an invention traceable to a specific tim e, place, and person. The single-cell design, surveillance-friendly layout, and individ­ ualized organization were invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 1790s; prisons on his panoptical m odel were first built in the early nineteenth centuiy. But supermax prisons are also embedded in a complex sociosocial research Vol 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 547 technological system—the prison industrial system, or m ore accurately, the prison-military industrial system—in precisely Marx’s second sense in which technology lacks boundaries and tends to spread out in all directions from the original invention (1997: 980). The contem porary superm axim um security or control prison is designed to separate prisoners from the general prison population. Inmates are kept alone in small cells for 23 or m ore hours a day; they are taken out only in restraints and under guard. The cells have heavy doors, opaque windows, or no windows at all; lights are on all night and noise levels are generally high. Contact w ith the outside world is restricted or nonexistent (Rhodes, 2004, 2005). This model of intensive isolation has become pervasive over the past 30 years of prison expan­ sion, w ith at least 60 facilities currently operating in the United States (National Institute of Corrections, 1997). Although specific inform ation is sketchy, it is clear that the supermax is now a standard feature of the state and federal prison complex as well as of various “hom eland secu­ rity” projects. Domestic use of supermax occurs in a context of exten­ sive overlap between domestic and m ilitaiy practices (Gordon, 2006) as well as international expansion (Boin, 2001). My aim here is to consider three aspects of the technology of supermax. The first is the sense in which the supermax prison is itself a “m achine”: a specific invention w ith a purpose and m eaning closely linked to its features as a technology. This aspect is im portant for under­ standing w hat makes the construction of these prisons so attractive to correctional professionals and so seemingly acceptable to the general public. The second aspect is the use of specialized tools of control inside the supermax prison. These internal solutions to problems of order—I will discuss com puterized surveillance, special response team s, and stun technology—offer clues to how specific technologies intersect w ith intensive confinem ent to frame punishm ent as decisive “action” produced by prisoners’ “choices” and analogous to “war.” Finally, super­ max technology imposes specific practices and ways of being on both prisoners and prison staff. These need to be understood not only for how they augm ent and intensify other...


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