A Review of the Book, “Supermax Prison: Controlling the Most Dangerous Criminals” by Larry L Franklin and Rakesh Chandra, MD, JD
This book provides a frank and fascinating look at life in maximum security prisons. It is both uplifting and depressing reading, and some parts are even quite difficult to read, especially those with graphic descriptions of heinous crimes. While the main focus is on the relatively short life of Illinois’ super-max prison named Tamms, after the small town in the southernmost part of the state where it was built, the story is relevant for all institutions of incarceration. The challenge of balancing the safety of custodians and inmates with the goal of rehabilitating dangerous criminals to reenter society as law-abiding citizens is immense indeed. The book details both successes and failures and culminates with proposals to improve the chances of success. In the end the prison was closed after only 15 years due to pressures from outside humanitarian groups, a terrible financial situation in the state, and other factors; however, the authors feel its demise was ultimately a political decision, one that they think was mistaken. Changing prison cultures from the traditional emphasis on punishment to preparation for a meaningful life requires many support programs, but especially those emphasizing improving mental health. Due to the trend to decentralize mental health treatment into the community, prisons today are defacto taking the place of closed mental health hospitals by having to house those who have such serious mental health problems that community centers can’t handle them. But neither are the prisons adequately prepared to deal with this population. The book ends on a high note with a hypothetical rebirth of a Tamms with the proper structure, procedures and support that result in providing secure containment for those unable or unwilling to be rehabilitated and a path to mental health recovery for the rest. It can only be hoped that the lessons learned from the past can result in better results in the future, and that the dream of such a Tamms can be realized as soon as possible.
William M. Vicars, Ph.D.