Jen Feldman
Media Theory and Visual Culture
Professor Irvine
Spring 2012

The Birth of the Supermax: Symbolic and Architectural Determinism in Contemporary American Prison Design

1. Introduction

“The act of institution is thus an act of communication, but of a particular kind: it signifies to someone what his identity is, but in a way that both expresses it to him and imposes it on him by expressing it in front of everyone ... and thus informing him in an authoritative manner of what he is and what he must be...But this is even truer of an investiture or an act of naming, a specifically social judgement of attribution which assigns to the person involved everything that is inscribed in a social definition. It is through the effect of statutory assignation (noblesse oblige) that the ritual of institution produces its most 'real' effects: the person instituted feels obliged to comply with his definition, with the status of his function.”
  • Pierre Bourdieu (1991, p. 120-121)

Pelican Bay State Prison, Del Norte County, California
Pelican Bay State Prison, Del Norte County, California

In his work, Language and Symbolic Power, Pierre Bourdieu describes the determining aspects of forms of institutional inscription. Functioning here as almost destining forces, names, to Bourdieu, signify to a man “what he is and what he must be” - here complying with an assignation of nobility. Institutional inscriptions, however, such as names and the physical structures that house the institution and perpetuate its existence, can also function in less glamorous ways, both determining a man's criminality and furthering his development along this unproductive course.

Supermax prisons, a portmanteau of “super” and “maximum” prisons, are designed to house criminals who are deemed to be the “worst of the worst”. Despite their recent exponential growth, in both numbers of prisons and numbers of inmates within those new prisons and existing ones, no official definitions exist about what makes a prison “supermax”, other than a vaguely defined commitment to confining the “worst of the worst” criminals for long periods of time. Often located in remote geographical locations across the United States, supermax prisons, and their prisoners, are designed to remain 'out of sight' and 'out of mind' of the law-abiding American population.

In this paper, I will argue that supermax prisons, through their architectural designs, function as physical structural spaces that simultaneously constrain and produce the behavior of those they imprison. Prison architecture throughout history has always inscribed punishment on its prisoners through its physical space, its exterior and interior constructions, as well as its symbolic forms of physical punishment. I will explore briefly how the fastest growing type of prison in America came to be the way it is and offer some possibilities for prison architecture in the future to create structures that securely house dangerous criminals but do not eliminate completely the possibility for rehabilitation, or at the least a humane existence throughout one's long-term period of confinement.

2. Bourdieu on Symbolic Functions of Institutions: Nominal and Architectural Determinism

Pierre Bourdieu (1991) argues that symbolic declarations and categorization provided by societal institutions aid in fortifying the already existing state of the institution and perpetuate its being in more powerful ways. For Bourdieu, nominal determinism is one the most powerful means through which a subject both constitutes himself and is constituted by others:

“The institution of an identity, which can be a title of nobility or a stigma ('you're nothing but a …), is the imposition of a name, i.e., of a social essence. To institute, to assign an essence, a competence, is to impose a right to be that is an obligation of being so (or to be so). It is to signify to someone what he is and how he should conduct himself as a consequence. In this case, the indicative is an imperative. ... To institute, to give a social definition, an identity, is also to impose boundaries.”

Thus, a person, once categorized through a name, is both constructed and limited by his institutional boundaries. Social science research on prisons has confirmed Bourdieu's suspicions, positing that those who inhabit supermax prisons, from the inmates to the correctional officers, are constituted mainly through institutional inscriptions that come from one's name, or designation, and one's place, or space.

Contributing significantly to this problem is the characterization of supermax inmates as simply “the worst of the worst”. Through this vague and limited label, a myth begins to be built up around the nature and behavior of each inmate. Prisoners are sent to supermax prisons for a variety of crimes, including ones that occur in less-secure facilities and necessitate their move, and characterizing them all immediately under the umbrella phrasing of 'the worst of the worst' already begins to influence both how the corrections officers view them, as well as how the prisoners begin to view themselves.
Artist's rendering of a standard supermax cell designed for solitary confinement of prisoners for at least 23 hours a day
Artist's rendering of a standard supermax cell designed for solitary confinement of prisoners for at least 23 hours a day

This initial categorization sets off an interminable feedback loop of criminal-identity construction and reconstruction which inevitably reinforces the notion of 'the worst of the worst', and as a result produces what King et al. (2008) term a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. For example, when a prisoner, or any individual, is “treated as though they possess certain characteristics, whether they actually have them or not, they often develop those characteristics, or they are magnified because of the treatment. Simply put, when inmates are locked up for being recalcitrant, they become recalcitrant”. In the case of a prisoner who is placed in supermax custody, one who would in relation to other prisoners not be considered truly one of the 'worst of the worst', will inevitably evolve to become that which he was characterized: “After being put in lockup, minor troublemakers can become serious troublemakers” (King et al., 2008).

Furthermore, the very architecture of the prison and its institutional structure can further the devolution of a 'bad' criminal into what we would actually consider a “worst of the worst” criminal. Thus, according to King et al. (2008), “the more taxed a person is by his environment, the more likely he is to view that environment as bad. A constant environment of this nature may increase a person’s resiliency and lead to an increase in outbursts”. By incarcerating a 'bad' prisoner in solitary confinement in a supermax, the environment of the prison, both physical and symbolically institutional, often forces the inmate to become that which he was not previously – the “worst of the worst” - and thus, in the end, deserving of his initial categorization. As King et al. (2008) writes,

“It is our contention that placing inmates in the [supermax] exacerbates any emotional, psychological, and behavior problems those inmates may have. Being labeled the worst of the worst and treated that way increases the inmate’s hostility toward his captors and toward society in general. In addition, the officers’ code of silence and subcultural norms approving violence in the SHU aggravate whatever propensities toward violence the inmates possess. When new officers arrive to work at Pelican Bay [to its supermax unit], they are informed they will be guarding the most violent, most predatory inmates housed...They are trained to respond to violence and warned that they face death every day they come to work at Pelican Bay. When inmates are sent to the SHU at Pelican Bay, they are validated as the “baddest of the bad.” They are declared extremely dangerous, assaultive, violent, and unmanageable in a regular maximum-security environment.”

Photograph of an actual cell in Pelican Bay State Prison
Photograph of an actual cell in Pelican Bay State Prison

Through their very placement in a supermax facility, prisoners, despite their history, inevitably “legitimize” their placement in solitary confinement, making the whole process a self-fulfilling prophecy at its most succinct and effective.

As mentioned before, the architecture of the prison even produces much of the behavior of the correctional officers themselves, who begin to operate automatically in response to the categorization of the prisoners they are meant to guard. The socialization of prison guards is governed through their understanding of the prison's inmates' criminality, through language and instruction, before they even come in contact with the prisoners. New guards “learn from the war stories of seasoned veterans that inmates are lazy, untrustworthy, manipulative, and less than human” (King et al., 2008), and begin to treat their new prisoners in response to how older guards have constituted their relationship to their prisoners, perpetuating the self-fulfilling prophecy of inmate and officer discord and thus the necessity for strict solitary-confinement and even the existence of the supermax prison itself.

3. America's First Experiment with Solitary Confinement: Eastern State Penitentiary

Historically, in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, American prisons were often gothically foreboding structures, like Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary, that were strategically placed within city limits (in this case, Philadelphia), to intimidate the urban populace into following the law. By removing the prison from public view, however, supermax institutions can allow, essentially, any actions, legal or illegal, to potentially occur within the prison structure. Thus, in almost all supermax prisons, which are either stand-alone structures or attached to a larger 'maximum-security' prison, prisoners are kept in 8x10 feet cells in solitary confinement, occasionally allowed outside their cell to exercise for no more than an hour day, once more in caged isolation.

Exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary, located within Philadelphia
Exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary, located within Philadelphia
At Eastern State Penitentiary, however, which from its very creation became what is considered by many to be the “most influential prison ever built”, the very act of solitary confinement was meant to signify an attempt at criminal rehabilitation itself. Constructed in 1822, Eastern State Penitentiary was “not only one of the largest and most expensive structures in the country at the time”, but was also designed to physically alter the behavior of the prisoners it housed (Johnston, 2004). Those in charge of designing and commissioning the structure sought to address some of the many problems that plagued other large prisons of that time, such as “idleness that led to disorder and violence; overcrowding...poor supervision by sometimes venal and untrained personnel; abysmal health conditions of the inmates; and, of course, the questionable rehabilitative value of such incarceration” (Johnston, 2004). Unlike the existing model for many American prisons, which was essentially a slightly more legal version of a slave plantation or work camp, the founders of Eastern State Penitentiary believed that the “key to true reform was complete isolation of inmates from one another, providing them with the right mix of solitude for reflection and perhaps reading and some vocational training or useful work” (Johnston, 2004).

Photograph of a typical cell in Eastern State Penitentiary
Photograph of a typical cell in Eastern State Penitentiary

We can begin to see here the roots of the mutated system of solitary confinement in contemporary supermax prisons, albeit in a more well-intentioned form. At the Eastern State Penitentiary, solitary confinement was the “answer to the evils of congregate imprisonment” that was practiced elsewhere (Johnston, 2004). In terms of its architecture, the penitentiary was a state-of-the-art facility. Since this was the first time a prison had to be designed to support 24-hour solitary confinement of its inmates, the commissioners and engineers had to conceive of new ways to house the prisoners, resulting in the inclusion of what many deemed extravagant technologies:

“Eschewing the use of a toilet bucket, common in almost every prison, some into the mid-20th century, Haviland [the architect] provided a cell flush toilet years before they were available in the White House and central heating before the U.S. Capitol...had it. Showers, apparently the first in the country (and where the inmates were taken individually about every 2 or 3 weeks), were in place before those installed shortly thereafter in a first-class Boston hotel...Because the inmate was not to leave his or her cell, it also had to serve as a workshop. This resulted in large cells, even by 21st century standards, that were 8 feet wide and from 12 to 16 feet long, most with an attached exercise yard”. (Johnston, 2004).

Architectural design of Eastern State Penitentiary
Architectural design of Eastern State Penitentiary

Thus the physical architecture of the prison, including its technological infrastructure, enabled the building to support, or at least attempt to support, large numbers of prisoners who were sentenced to a single cell and yard space for the entire day alone in isolation. The infrastructure of the Eastern State Penitentiary also enabled an environment that was comparatively more healthy than other prisons of the time. Individual showers, baths and water taps facilitated a healthier environment that prisoners in congregate prisons were deprived of (Johnston, 2004). Overall, however, Eastern State Penitentiary's success laid mainly in its design, rather than its promise of criminal rehabilitation, with its central “experience of enforced isolation” functioning as a promising deterrent of future crimes, and the very architecture itself serving to help perpetuate a “coherent philosophy of treatment that influenced prisons around the world into the early 20th century and beyond” (Johnston, 2004).

4. The Architecture of Supermax: Foundations and Elaborations

It is interesting to note that some of the very amenities and technologies that enabled prisoners in the nineteenth century to live out their sentences more hospitably in Eastern State are the same amenities and technologies that both facilitate and justify the inhumane structure of supermax prisons today. At its inception, the super-maximum prison facility was essentially a response to the substantial rise in crime in the 1970s and early 1980s. Previous to this period, prison reform was geared mainly towards rehabilitation of prisoners, with campaigns headed mostly by reform-minded sociologists working in the 1950s and 1960s (Rhodes, 2001). This outlook resulted in the creation of many experimental rehabilitation programs and other attempts at prison reform.

This form of thinking, however, was quickly abandoned after the general rise in crime throughout American society in the 1970s and early 1980s, and after the violent prison uprisings, including the famous riot at Attica in 1971. In response, corrections officers demanded safer environments to work in, and prison designers responded to the constant threat of inmate uprisings by planning institutions that would support a more isolating, yet 'safer', environment for both the guards and the inmates themselves.

As we have seen earlier, the American prison system has supported solitary confinement in various forms throughout its history, but as Lorna Rhodes (2004) argues, confinement within the supermax is a new form of architectural and institutional punishment:

“Supermax units, in contrast, are a new technology involving intensive forms of administration: practices including tight feeding and exercise schedules, programs for behavior change, and elaborate computer systems for tracking and surveilling inmates. At first glance these places appear bright, clean, orderly – and curiously empty. The densely walled cells with their steel doors, arranged in rows on tiers and separated by concrete and Plexiglas walls into “pods,” seem completely inimical to any kind of social interaction.”

A physical infrastructure such as the one described above constructs new ideas of what it means to be a prisoner in a contemporary prison in America today. Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts in prisons like Eastern State, “contemporary supermax prisoners...are the raw material of a different project, one that expects no realization of future citizenship...he is...regarded as purely responsible for himself” (Rhodes, 2004). Despite the majority of supermax prison sentences lasting, at their original judgement, less than a life-sentence, supermax prisons do little to support prisoner re-entry and socialization back into society, and aid even less in providing rehabilitation and education opportunities.

5. Works Referenced

Bishop, M. (2005). Supermax Prisons: Increasing Security or Permitting Persecution?, 47, 461-491.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Oxford: Polity Press.

Cowles, E. (2005). Creating the elements of a humane prison system. In D. Jones (Ed.), Humane Prisons (pp. 101-113). Milton Keynes:

Dobrzynski, J. (1997). For a Summer Getaway, a Model Prison. The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

Gill, H. B. (1962). Correctional Philosophy and Architecture. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 53(3), 312-322.

Glancey, J. (2001). Within these walls. The Guardian. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

Gopnik, A. (2012). Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice in America. The New Yorker. Retrieved May 12, 2012, from

Haney, C. (2008). A Culture of Harm: Taming the Dynamics of Cruelty in Supermax Prisons. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(8), 956-984.

Johnston, J., & Hamilton-Grey, S. (2010a). Beyond the Prison Bars: Rehabilitation and the Urban Prison. Inside Time Newspaper. Retrieved
May 15, 2012, a from

Johnston, J., & Hamilton-Grey, S. (2010b). Can rehabilitation be designed into a prison? Inside Time Newspaper. Retrieved May 12, 2012, b

King, K., Steiner, B., & Ritchie Breach, S. (2008). Violence in the Supermax: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The Prison Journal, 88(1), 144-168.

Maher, M. (2008). Correctional Facility Planning and Design. University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering Professional Development.
Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

Rhodes, L. A. (2001). Toward an Anthropology of Prisons. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 65-83.

Rhodes, L. A. (2005). Changing the Subject: Conversation in Supermax. Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), 388-411.

Rosenfeld, K. (2012). 499.summit reimagines u.s. prisons. Arch Daily. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

6. Media

Pelican Bay State Prison, Del Norte County, CaliforniaArtist's rendering of a standard supermax cell designed for solitary confinement of prisoners for at least 23 hours a dayPhotograph of an actual cell in Pelican Bay State Prison Architectural design of Eastern State PenitentiaryPhotograph of a typical cell in Eastern State PenitentiaryExterior of Eastern State Penitentiary, located within Philadelphia