Recidivism in Ex-Inmates of Supermax Prisons

Jesenia Pizarro
Associate Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Arizona State University

Key Findings

  • Most inmates released from a supermax facility had recidivism rates similar to ex-inmates who were not in a supermax facility.
  • Compared to ex-inmates of supermax prisons who did not reoffend, those who reoffended were younger, and were more likely to be serving time for a drug offence and to have a history of prior incarcerations and disciplinary infractions while incarcerated.
  • Offenders released from supermax units reoffended in a shorter amount of time if they were gang members, served shorter sentences, and had a history or drug or alcohol abuse.


In the article, “Supermax and Recidivism: An Examination of the Recidivism Covariates Among a Sample of Supermax Ex-Inmates,” Pizarro, Zgoba, and Haugebrook assessed the rates of recidivism of individuals who re-engaged in crime after being released from a supermax prison. A supermax prison is a facility often called a prison within a prison that is for inmates with violent or seriously disruptive behavior; supermax facilities feature extended isolation and unique forms of deprivation. Some advocates and scholars have expressed concern that confinement in such prisons may be harmful to inmates’ mental health. The study looked at recidivism rates in 610 released inmates who had been confined to a supermax unit in a northeastern U.S. prison in 2004, following up on them an average of 5 years later. The researchers also looked at the freed inmates’ criminal history prior to incarceration, and their demographic and social characteristics. In general, ex-inmates housed in a supermax unit were not more likely to reoffend, suggesting that placement in a supermax facility does not create unique challenges that result in recidivism. Compared with inmates released from supermax facilities who did not recidivate, ex-inmates who did reoffend were younger, more likely to be serving time for a drug offense, and more likely to have prior incarcerations and disciplinary infractions while incarcerated. The study also identified several factors that affected the time it took the ex-inmates to reoffend, including gang membership, length of sentence, and history of substance abuse. The findings can inform re-entry efforts since they describe the factors that affect how inmates placed in such restrictive environments do after they are released.

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