Technology and the Eighth Amendment: The Problem of Supermax Prisons

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Volume 4, Issue 1 (Jun 2012)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in the United States, at the end of 2000, 6.5 million people were either on probation, parole, or in jail or prison.This figure represents 3.5 percent of the population. Of these 6.5 million people, nearly 1.4 million resided in prison. The United States, one of the world’s largest incarcerators, also leads the way in the development of state of the art prisons, known by several names  but frequently called Supermaxes. One figure puts the number of Supermax prisoners between 25,000 and 100,000. Undoubtedly, these technologically advanced Supermax prisons represent one of the newest approaches to incarceration. However, they also may represent a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment  and foretell of an impending constitutional crisis behind prison walls. According to the United States Supreme Court, “[i]t is undisputed that the treatment a prisoner receives in prison and the conditions under which he is confined are subject to scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment.”‘ Correspondingly, technologically advanced Supermax prisons, and the unique conditions they create, must be subjected to a rigorous Eighth Amendment examination, an examination they will likely fail if courts faithfully apply the current test for Eighth Amendment violations.

Charles A. Pettigrew, Technology and the Eighth Amendment: The Problem of Supermax Prisons, 4 N.C. J.L. & Tech. 191 (2002), available at

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