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Punishment to the max

By Anil Matoo - posted Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The term "Supermax" is commonly thought to have derived from the state of extreme lockdown after the turbulent events in 1983 at Marion Prison in Illinois, USA. However, one of the very first instances of the use of prolonged solitary confinement can be traced back to 1790 with The Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia, USA. The modern-day Supermax prisons in the USA are penal institutions where prisoners, who are deemed to pose the greatest risk and danger to society, are permanently subjected to the punishment of prolonged solitary confinement.

The punishment of solitary confinement has been a key feature of Australian penal policy. The practice of "secondary punishment" was utilised in the early instances of the Australian penal colonies. It was a punishment for the violation of an offense by a convict in the colony who had already been transported for an offence in Britain. Norfolk Island penal colony, one of many sites that executed secondary punishment, had Governor Darling stating, upon reflection of its re-opening for the imprisoning of the most dangerous criminals, that it was 'a place of the extremist punishment, short of death.' This has led many commentators such as David Brown, to hold the sentiment that 'the modern parallel is the Supermax prison.'

If we tie this into the modern-era of penal punishment there is a cross-over in the objective of such a method of imprisonment of prolonged solitary confinement in the Australian context. Brown maintains that these convict secondary sites were seen as necessary weapons against state terror. In the 21st century, issues surrounding national security have been raised in accordance to the threat of global terrorism. Goulburn HRMU, for example, is a prison where terrorist-category prisoners are detained under conditions which bear a great similarity to a similar category of prisoners in the Supermax prison in the USA.


Globalisation of the Supermax Prison into the Australian Penal System

In the Goulburn HMRU, in NSW, often dubbed as the "Australian Supermax prison", there is the incarceration of suspected terrorists. At Goulburn HRMU, there is no fixed term upon the punishment and it has avoided legal accountability also in the treatment of its prisoners. The prison can be seen as evidence of the globalised convergence in the way that the US Supermax prison model aims to "deal" with a particular risk-category of prisoner.

There are a number of purported areas, which may be used as examples of global convergence of the Supermax model into penal systems across the world. The first area concerns the global appeal of ensuring prisoner behavioural control at the expense of the psychological welfare of the prisoner. Commonly associated themes of prisoner behavioural control, which is found in the Supermax model, are being diffused. In the Australian penal system, such diffusion of US policies can be seen with the infliction of aggression in militarised cell extractions of prisoners, forced DNA sample donation of prisoners and excessive strip-searching of inmates.

In the Dutch system, such a firm strip-searching policy has led to complaints of inhuman treatment of the prisoner. The damage to the prisoner in Australia has been dubbed as a 'sexual assault by the state. These are all forms of ensuring that security is maintained at the expense of the prisoner being subjugated and suffering psychologically from such a treatment. Australian case law (especially the case of Raad v. Dpp, VSC 330) has found that such sensory deprivation of individuals 'pose a risk to the psychiatric health of even the most psychologically robust individual.'

The Terrorist Sub-Category & Global Convergence of the Supermax Model

It is in the treatment of a certain sub-category of prisoner whereby a global convergence of the US ideal of the treatment of a prisoner can be most readily gleaned. It is here where the logical structure and administration of imprisonment techniques, found in Australia and the Supermax model, merge. Sub-categories include prisoners who are being imprisoned due to terrorist offences. For example, in Goulburn HRMU, sub-category prisoners are kept in conditions that are similar to the Supermax model, which causes several complaints by the inmates e.g. lack of natural light, the sterile nature of the environment, lack of access to sufficient medical services in conjunction to the dehumanisation of the prisoner via the lack of access to religious material, excessive CCTV monitoring and stringent restrictions upon seeing visitors.


This is where the globalisation of the US ideal of justice upon individuals as a result of its policies against the war on terror can be seen. Policy transfer is not a new phenomenon and has the classic hallmarks of colonialism. It is through the universal homogeneity of the Supermax model's psychological impact that prolonged solitary confinement has on an individual in order to control of prisoners who have committed crimes of "terror."

Final Remarks

The contention being made here is that the Supermax model is a new type of globalisation- it is a form of (post)modern globalisation relating to the dispensation of justice and penal control through the conventional avenues of globalisation as a response to the perceived global threat of terrorism. It is too early to state that from this evidence a global homogenisation penal policy is upon us. The developments, however, in the Australian penal system do provide a good indication that the USA is playing a significant role in how certain prisoners, who are deemed a terror to society, should be punished.

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About the Author

Anil Matoo is from Coventry, England. He has just completed his Masters in International Human Rights Law (Distinction) and has two degrees: one in philosophy and the other in law. He is intending to go on to do his PhD inlLaw exploring this issue of prolonged solitary confinement and its infringement on prisoner's rights. In his master's dissertation concerning solitary confinement, a significant chapter involved the potential of the globalisation of the US Supermax Prison and used Australia as an example of this penal global convergence.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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