Justice Posner’s description of a Supermax prison, in Scarver v. Litscher rekindled my discomfort with such facilities. Posner draws a clear picture of life at the prison’s “Level One” where all prisoners begin their stay and some continue for several months:
Inmates…are locked in windowless single-person cells for all but four hours of the week; the four hours are for recreation in a small windowless room not much larger than the cells. The cells are illuminated 24 hours a day so that the guards can watch the inmates, although they glance in only intermittently. The cells are not air-conditioned, and so, being windowless, they become extremely hot during the summer–the heat index sometimes rises above 100 degrees, and often above 90. The inmates are not allowed to have mechanical or electronic possessions, such as a television set, a clock, or even a watch–just one religious text, one box of legal documents, and 25 personal letters.
Perhaps it reflects my own lack of an inner life, but this sounds like hell on earth. I think I would quickly go mad in that little box. Although Level One is clearly the worst of the worst, it appears – looking over some of the prison handbooks for Level 2 – 5, available here – that life in the Supermax doesn’t get hugely better. Although Level 5 offers a small TV, you’re still locked in that room almost all day and night.
This all brings up two issues. First, is Supermax punishment so cruel that it is inherently unconstitutional? Second, even if not, should legislatures have to specifically authorize Supermax sentences for particular crimes?