Global Ethics Corner: Do Super-Maximum Security Prisons Constitute Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

April 13, 2012

It's a bad time for advocates of prisoner rights. In a surprise decision, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a British request to extradite five suspects wanted in the U.S. on terrorism charges. The decision was a blow to human rights advocates, who argue that suspects face cruel and unusual punishment in America's "Supermax" facilities.

In the post-Alcatraz era, super-maximum security prisons have become the long-term holding place for America's most dangerous criminals. Home to notorious terrorists and murders, Supermax facilities offer ultra-high security levels that are virtually escape-proof. But the Supermax has come under scrutiny for standards that critics say violate basic human rights and run counter to the U.S. constitution.

Few suggest that life in a Supermax is easy. These prisons hold inmates in solitary confinement. Many face life without parole and can go years, sometimes decades, without making human contact. Inmates spend their days in cramped cells, permitted outside for as little as an hour a day. Their rooms have tiny windows that allow only a glimpse of sky.

Inmates have described the Supermax as tantamount to hell. They complain of depression, hallucination, and even memory loss. But while critics call it torture, advocates call it justice. They say Supermax facilities offer the best line of defense against the world's most violent criminals and are in keeping with international law. The European Court of Human Rights agrees, ruling that Supermax facilities meet European standards.

But some doubt the court's logic. European law forbids inhumane and degrading treatment. And most European countries don't permit life without parole, choosing instead to uphold policies of compassionate release.

Where do you stand? Are Supermax sentences cruel and unusual? Or are they a necessary tool to combat global terror?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Adam Liptak, "Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’," The New York Times, April 23, 2008

Alex Stamm, "Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights," American Civil Liberties Union, April 9, 2012

Sean Clare and Daniel Nasaw, "Just how bad are American 'supermax' prisons?," BBC News, April 10, 2012

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:
frank müller
Cary Bass
Damon Taylor
Charlie Beldon
Danielle Kellogg
Max Moreau

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