The Federal Bureau of Prisons oversees 114 correctional institutions throughout the United States. Most of them are classified as Minimum to Medium security, Levels I-IV. These facilities house everyday criminals, and only contain a very small number of high-profile, high risk inmates. There are 22 prisons, however, that are dedicated to keeping the most dangerous humans in the country off the streets. These are Super-Maximum Security prisons, or Supermax. They are classified as Levels V-VI, and they offer little more than what is needed to survive; nourishment and shelter. Most offer no chance of rehabilitation, and for some, it’s just the last stop before capital punishment. The evolution of the Supermax prison can be seen the clearest through three facilities: United States Penitentiary (USP) Alcatraz, USP Marion, and Administrative Maximum USP Florence. The first real need for a Supermax prison arose in the 1920’s, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. Crime was rampant, and gangsters like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly ran the streets. The Ashurst-Sumners Act, which prohibited the interstate transportation and sale of goods manufactured in prisons, had officially ended free-market prison industry. Prison administrators, left with inmates that had nothing to do, latched on to the concept that only through a harsh prison sentence could an inmate pay their debt to society. Prisons transformed from factories to fortresses, with maximum security and minimum freedom. But many could not handle the influx of criminals that rose with the crime rate, along with agitated inmates that incited riots just to pass the otherwise uneventful time. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, newly established in 1930, decided that a message needed to be sent to the American public that the uncontrolled crime surge would not go unchallenged any longer.
Twenty years ago, super-maximum-security prisons were rare in America. As of 1996, over two-thirds of states had...
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