Vol. 14 No. 6 (June 2004), pp.485-488

TOTAL CONFINEMENT: MADNESS AND REASON IN THE MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISON, by Lorna A. Rhodes.  California: University of California Press, 2004.  329pp. Cloth $50.00 / £32.95.  ISBN: 0-520-22987-8.  Paper $19.95 / £12.95.  ISBN 0-520-24076-6.

Reviewed by Jody L. Sundt, Department of Criminal Justice, Indiana University.  Email: jsundt@indiana.edu

Scholars of punishment are almost wholly preoccupied with explaining the causes and consequences of the unprecedented increase in the use of incarceration in the United States (and to a lesser extent, in Great Britain).  The statistics are familiar to the point of losing their impact, but bear repeating.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. incarcerated 2,078,570 inmates in 2003, a rate of 715 per 100,000 residents.  This represents an increase of approximately 50,000 inmates since 2002, and is part of a steep upward trend, that began in the 1980s, in both the size of the prison population and the rate of incarceration.  These numbers have become so overwhelming that the growth in imprisonment dominates virtually all discourse on corrections today.  Strangely missing from this discussion is an analysis of the inner workings of the contemporary prison, how it is experienced by the millions of individuals who work and live behind its walls.  This is a significant oversight, for the growth in imprisonment represents fundamental shifts in assumptions about the causes of crime, sentencing philosophy, and the purpose of prisons that have broad implications for how prisons are organized and experienced.  In this important and timely book, Lorna Rhodes focuses our attention on the internal landscape of a contemporary maximum security prison and explores the contours and contradictions of a system of control based on extreme views of individual choice and pathology.

The primary subject of Rhodes’ analysis is a maximum security control unit in Washington State.  Control units—also variously known as “supermax,” special housing units (SHU), and administrative segregation—are unique features of the contemporary correctional system that represent the logical and cultural culmination of rational choice and opportunity theories of crime and the policies of deterrence and incapacitation.  These facilities are charged with housing and controlling the so-called “worst of the worst,” the most recalcitrant inmates from the general prison population. A supermax functions as a prison for prisons—it is an administrative classification used for inmates who have engaged in behavior while in prison that is deemed especially disruptive or violent.  Control units subject inmates to extremes of isolation and control on the premise that they are too dangerous to be housed in “general population.”  The claim is also made that supermaxes create safer prison systems by deterring potential trouble makers and incapacitating the very dangerous.

Based on extensive ethnographic [*486] research, including participant observation and semi-structured interviews with staff and inmates conducted over an eight year period, Rhodes examines four primary issues.  First, Rhodes considers inmates’ positions in and responses to the social world of the control unit.  Specifically, she asks “What assumptions about dangerousness, self-control, and individual choice are contained in, and signaled by, measures of extreme confinement?  What conundrums are encountered both by those who are the objects of these measures and by those who enforce them” (p.4)?  One of the primary conundrums identified by Rhodes is that control units tend to “secrete the very thing it most tries to eliminate” (p 29); ironically, the tighter the control and the more extreme the isolation, the more problems are generated.  These problems take a variety of forms that raise fundamental questions about individual autonomy, reason, and the legitimacy of coercive control. 

Second, the work considers whether there is any “give” or hope in the “system.”  This issue is explored by examining the contradictions of custody and treatment, rational management models and psychiatry, and how these sometimes irreconcilable models force prisons and those who work in them to reflect on what they do.  The struggle between custody and treatment, argues Rhodes, creates opportunities for reflection and change, and, perhaps for hope. 

Third, the work is concerned with exploring theoretical debates in anthropology and other disciplines concerning the relationship between power and the formation of the modern sense of self.  Although the work does not attempt to advance a particular theory, Rhodes draws on the themes identified by Michel Foucault in DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH.  The themes of power, knowledge, and self-regulation form a subtle backdrop for the discussion a variety of events, people, and practices throughout the book.  This approach has the very desirable effect of keeping the material accessible to those unfamiliar with anthropology, criminology, and sociology, while providing those who are engaged with these theoretical perspectives a wealth of material and insight.

Fourth, and most importantly, Rhodes explores what contemporary prisons reveal about humanity.  The supermax in particular raises questions about the role of prisons in broader process of quarantine and social exclusion.  As Rhodes contends: “When these projects of exclusion are framed in entirely individualistic and non-rehabilitative terms, they confront us with disturbing questions about what it means to be a human—a social—being” (p.7).  The central question explored here, then, is “what makes for a rational, self-regulating human-being” (p.15)?  As Rhodes attempts to answer this question, the reader is drawn to the conclusion that control units are untenable structures that lead to the dehumanization of inmates and prison staff.

The book is organized in three parts.  Throughout, the narrative is engaging and includes numerous firsthand accounts from inmates, correctional workers, and prison administrators.  The observations are also illustrated with drawings, advertisements from [*487] correctional trade magazines, and quotes from a variety of sources.  Part One provides a detailed description of supermax confinement and the system of control and isolation found in one of the most closed and poorly understood prison environments.  In addition, Rhodes discusses how in spite of, or maybe because of, intensive confinement, inmates resist control by using their body waste as weapons and by engaging in other extreme forms of defiance.  It is in this section that the author develops the view that control units are self-defeating.

Part Two considers the relationship between the treatment of mentally ill inmates and the custodial regime of the prison.  Here Rhodes discusses the classification process and the metaphors that treatment staff use to manage and understand mentally ill inmates.  Interestingly, in a system based on extreme notions of rationality and individual choice, the mentally ill “jacket,” or label, is one of the few ways that inmates find “give” in the system.  This jacket, however, also carries a heavy stigma.

Unlike many previous works that have considered the conflict between treatment and custody, Rhodes portrays this as a complex interaction.  Although treatment and custodial views are often contradictory, she also notes the way in which they are interdependent and reinforcing.  The division of psychiatric disorders into the major mental illnesses and character disorders, for example, reinforce notions about who is rational, and therefore accountable, and who is not.  These diagnoses, however, are frequently ambiguous and create new conundrums about the interpretation of behavior and motives.  Through this discussion, Rhodes illustrates how the conflict between psychiatric knowledge and custodial power can provide an opportunity for actors in the system to “struggle it out” and search for better solutions.  In this view, the conflict is an opportunity to articulate viewpoints and reexamine assumptions.  Rather than a problem, the conflict between treatment and custody is seen as an opportunity and a humanizing force.

Part Three of the book considers the issue of long term-confinement and describes the efforts of one control unit to challenge the assumptions behind it.  In this section, Rhodes describes how prison staff are taught to anticipate manipulation and how inmates struggle with the suspicion of lying.  Even inmates who maintain records of good behavior are viewed as playing a game, biding their time until an opportunity for exploitation arises.  This creates a dilemma, where notorious inmates are held for years in solitary confinement without hope of returning to a general population prison.  The fact that they adapt to the regime of the supermax is taken as evidence of their superhuman will.

In the final chapter, Rhodes discusses how the administration at one control unit attempted to confront the problems created by extreme isolation and exclusion.  The effort to humanize the supermax and address the contradiction found in the system of control involved a subtle but significant shift toward additional interaction.  Prison administrators began making regular visits to the cells and speaking to inmates.  By engaging in the most basic type of human service and social [*488] contact, the administration was able to break the cycle of aggression and retaliation that previously characterized the unit.

This is a significant work of scholarship that has important theoretical, political, and practical implications.  Moreover, TOTAL CONFINEMENT offers an intriguing and rare glimpse into the inner workings of a supermax prison.  At a time when scholars and policy makers are consumed with understanding and managing the growth of imprisonment, this work focuses attention on a different type of issue.  What happens to the people who live and work in prison when we “get tough” and “lock ‘em up and throw away the key?”  The answer appears to be that their humanity—and society’s as well—is reduced.  This work also makes clear, however, that for the people “struggling it out” in our prisons, hope remains.  Implicit in the work is a potent critique our current system of punishment that is sure to inspire readers from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.


Foucault, Michel.  1977. DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: THE BIRTH OF THE PRISON.  New York: Pantheon.


Copyright 2004 by the author, Jody L. Sundt.