Thinking about the ten year anniversary of THE GLOBALIZATION OF SUPERMAX PRISONS

A decade has passed since the publication of my edited book, The Globalization of Supermax Prisons.

This collection of thirteen chapters, four of which I sole-authored, and another I co-authored, was published in 2013 by Rutgers University Press.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons included a foreword by Loïc Wacquant, a highly regarded and respected Sociologist, along with insightful contributions from eleven other prominent academics. Together these researchers assembled and reviewed existing scholarship at the time on the emergence, growth, complexity, and proliferation of supermax prisons, a relatively new form of incarceration – an institution where inmates are typically locked up for a minimum of 23 hours a day, and afforded minimal rights and privileges, that frequently results in a deteriorating effect on prisoners’ mental and physical well-being.

The content of the book sits at the intersections of scholarship not only on corrections and criminal justice, but crimes of the powerful, and focused on the numerous factors that contribute to the growth and spread of supermax prisons, including political ideologies, economic incentives, and the securitization of penal policies.

With the exception of the introduction and conclusion, each chapter examined the experience of supermax prisons in countries where supermax prisons have proliferated, including not just the United States, but Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and South Africa.

These chapters also highlighted the unique ways in which supermaxes have been implemented and integrated within their respective criminal justice systems, emphasizing that supermax prisons are not just an American export, but a global phenomenon with distinctive local characteristics and implications.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons, demonstrated how this process is part of a larger trend influenced by neoliberal policies and free market ideology, which have contributed to the growth of the prison-industrial complex and the expansion of supermax institutions worldwide.

The chapters and the book itself also examine numerous connections within the relationships among globalization, capitalism, and the prison industry.

It’s important to note that many states and countries may not have a standalone supermax prisons, but rather a tier, wing, or annex where convicts who would normally be sent to a supermax facility are detained.

Thus, it is crucial to consider these variations in facility designations and terminology when researching these types of institutions globally.

By exploring the ethical implications of supermax prisons, the book challenged readers to critically evaluate the trade-off between public safety and individual-human rights.

The Globalization of Supermax Prisons received the 2013 “Choice Outstanding Academic Title” award and garnered nine mostly highly positive reviews in scholarly journals ranging from the Corrections Compendium to the Law and Politics Book Review. Reviewers were emphasized how the book was an important contribution to the discussion of the field of corrections.

In addition to its positive reception, the book made significant contributions to our understanding of the dissemination of American-style criminal justice initiatives, policies, and practices. It shed light on the persisting existence of supermax prisons and solitary confinement in many so-called civilized countries and underscored the need for empirical examination of whether these institutions and practices have increased over time.

Moreover, in the context of the ongoing rise in the global prison population, the book highlighted the lack of thoughtful mechanisms in place by most governments to deal with the incarceration of the most dangerous individuals in their correctional facilities. The books’ critical examination of the ethical implications of the prison-industrial complex and the pervasive influence of neoliberalism served as a valuable resource for readers grappling with the complex issues surrounding mass incarceration.

As we continue to navigate the challenges presented by supermax prisons, The Globalization of Supermax Prisons should serve as a compass guiding us toward the development of more just and humane prison and criminal justice systems.

The iceberg explanation of police use of excessive force

Ocean going ships, are occasionally in danger of hitting an iceberg. If the vessel hits an iceberg, not only can the ship’s vital components like its propeller or rudders be impaired, thus negatively effecting the ship’s maneuverability, navigation systems, and propulsion, but the vessel’s structure may be damaged, leading to flooding and potentially sinking the ship.

That is why over the past century a variety of protocols and technology (e.g., radar, sonar, and satellite imagery) have increasingly been used to prevent these kinds of incidents.

The challenge of not being able to see the entire picture is not endemic to ocean faring vessels and processes.

In the field of criminal justice, for example, police violence/excessive force is similar to an iceberg, where only a portion is visible to the public eye. The hidden portion beneath the surface represents the concealed instances of excessive force, which can be particularly dangerous.

The Nature of Police Violence/Police Use of Excessive Force

Few actions exist in a vacuum, and police violence, also known as excessive force, is no different.

More specifically, although reliable data is necessary to support claims about the frequency and types of such incidents, police violence/excessive force exists in a variety of contexts.

One of the most significant aspects to consider in addressing police violence is recognizing that it can occur both in public and private settings.

When police use of excessive force occurs in a public setting, there is a greater chance that it will be witnessed, including the possibility that it will be recorded via smartphone, and possibly shared on one or more social media platforms.

If the incident/s is particularly egregious, it may be the basis of a news media story. This information, in turn may lead to an investigation, the sanctioning of the officer/s, a change of policy, practice, etc.

The latter type of police violence (the one that is private), however, takes place away from the public eye, in areas where surveillance measures like CCTV, body-worn cameras, or dashboard cameras are less likely to capture the events. These secluded settings, such as back alleys, the back seat of police cruisers, or holding cells, can create an environment where abuse of power can go unnoticed.

Solutions used to address public police violence

Consequently, in recent years, along with demands to defund or abolish the police, we have witnessed a proliferation of recording technologies in law enforcement, such as dashboard and body-worn cameras. These tools provide a means to document police-citizen interactions and potentially expose instances of excessive force, and protect police officers from accusations of unnecessary force.

That being said, although collecting and analyzing video evidence is important, it doesn’t guarantee that an investigation, accountability (e.g., sanctions against involved officers, units or departments), or policy change will occur, nor does it insure that these actions will be done well.

Nevertheless, it serves as a starting point, as visible evidence can create pressure for change and prompt further examination of policies and practices.

To effectively address the issue of police violence, it’s crucial to rely not only on witness testimony or video evidence but also on comprehensive data collection, thorough investigations, and a commitment to accountability.

This requires systemic changes within law enforcement agencies, the support of external bodies for impartial investigations, and the willingness of policymakers to enact meaningful reforms.

By taking these steps, we can work towards reducing police use of excessive force and ensuring a more just and equitable society.

Photo Credit
Photographer: David Stanley
Title: Titanic Iceberg

Exploring how graffiti and street art calls attention to social justice issues

Graffiti and street art has a longstanding connection with political and social issues. Not only do we see this kind of activity proliferate when controversial issues are contested in urban public spaces, but we typically witness graffiti and street art when a grass roots social movement develops, or political or social revolution emerges.

In recent times lots of this type of graffiti and street art in support of ethnic, racial, and social justice issues has been produced. This work may be generic, like profanity laced tags against political leaders (e.g., Fuck Trump), etc., or it may involve more detailed and complicated types of communication including with different colors, shapes, and sizes, etc.

This whole cavalcade of icons, images, lettering, symbols, and words begs numerous interesting questions such as who is doing this kind of work? what is the range (e.g., what particular subjects do writers and artists focus on)? what effect (or impact) does it have? etc.

Some of these questions are more interesting and/or difficult to answer. Among the three previously listed ones, the effect of graffiti and street art that criticizes racial and ethnic injustice and promotes social justice are perhaps most interesting and are most needed for deeper inquiry.

Why? In recent times we have seen a considerable amount of graffiti and street art in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and protesting the needless deaths of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Climate Change and other threats to our environment, and in support of LGBTQ+ Rights and Visibility, Immigration and Migrant Rights, Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Indigenous Rights and Cultural Preservation

The question is how much impact does this work have?

On the plus side, graffiti and street art can bring awareness to pressing issues. And, despite its transient nature these forms of urban public art can have a lifespan beyond the surfaces it was originally applied to (through its reproduction through news and social media channels).

But who and how are subject populations (those that are exposed to graffiti and street art) affected by this work? Keep in mind that awareness does not necessarily mean that people are motivated to spring into action and engage in political activity that supports a particular political position.

Thus it’s important to measure the impact of graffiti and street art with different populations (e.g., from experts to nonexperts) using a multimethodological approach (e.g., surveys, interviews, focus groups, content analysis of news and social media coverage, etc.)

That being said, conducting this type of research that is rigorous and one to produce meaningful results is complicated and resource intensive.

One should not assume that if you do an examination of only one type of
In order to best understand a phenomenon it’s important to take a multi method approach.

Why? in any type of communication there are critical aspects to all types of communication including the creator/perpetrator, the communication vehicle and the interpretation.

Photo credit:
Photographer: Thomas Hawk
Title: Rest in Peace George Floyd