Mass incarceration, which began in the 1980s, has contributed to the disproportionate imprisonment of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as notable increases in the rate of imprisonment among women relative to men. Estimates suggest that approximately one in three Black males and one in six Hispanic males will be incarcerated during their lifetime, compared to only one in 17 White males. Similarly, although the odds of imprisonment are still much higher for men relative to women, the gender gap has closed considerably over the past 30 years. The overall growth in prison populations has provided new challenges to correctional administrators, including managing increasingly heterogeneous populations of inmates. Correctional administrators have used supermax facilities to manage some of the problems resulting from the increases in the prison population, such as reducing gang influence, increasing public safety, and punishing violent inmates. Yet, little is known about the race, class, and gender composition of inmates in supermax confinement.
The limited knowledge concerning female inmates and supermax confinement is probably attributable to the fact that women are rarely (if ever) placed in supermax confinement. For instance, Mears and Bales reported that only nine women released from prison between 1996 and 2001 in the state of Florida had served time in supermax confinement. Lovell et al. observed that Washington state’s supermax program was only used for men. Women respond differently to incarceration than men, and female inmates are less likely than men to engage in the type of violent behaviors that result in supermax placement (Lord, 2008). Thus, supermax confinement for female inmates may simply not be needed in most states.
Social class is a difficult concept to study among prison inmates because nearly all inmates are drawn from lower socioeconomic strata. Prison inmates are also drawn disproportionately from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Perhaps for this reason, no studies have examined the link between social class and supermax placement. Closely tied to class, however, is race and ethnicity. Black individuals, for example, are much more likely than White individuals to reside in disadvantaged areas, and this has been the case for a number of generations. Further, compared to residents of disadvantaged White neighborhoods, residents of disadvantaged Black neighborhoods experience greater levels of social isolation and disadvantage. Evidence also suggests that other ethnic minority groups (e.g., Hispanics) might also experience greater disadvantage compared to Whites.
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