Concepts in criminal justice

Concepts in criminal justice

What are the primary factors that have shaped changes in prison life from the correctional institution to the, ‘Supermax`?

            Supermax or Special Housing Units as they are generally known have been constructed to ensure that prisoners who are likely to cause harm to other prison inmates as well as aggressively confront the prison administration are housed in separate facilities which do not provide them opportunities for creating trouble. (Riveland, 1999). Thus the primary factors which have shaped the move from correctional institutions to supermax for critical prisoners leading to confinement upto 23 hours a day are based on their potential for violence, need to enhance safety of other inmates and the prison staff and maintain order in the correctional establishment.

            The most infamous criminals, terrorists and gang leaders are invariably housed in Supermax facilities such as at Florence, Colorado. Typical residents of this Supermax include Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted for participation in the 9/11 World Trade Tower terror strike, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and Richard Reid, another terrorist who was apprehended in an attempt to detonate explosives in his shoes while on board a flight. The ingenuity and ability of these persons to create disruption led to recognition of the need to place them in solitary confinement, limiting contact with the outside World. Safety of other inmates and prison staff is also an important requirement. Ever since 1978, there have been a series of assaults on prison staff and incidents of unrest including killing of two officers and an inmate in the US Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois in 1983. By confining those individuals who are likely to create violence, a close watch can be maintained, thereby acting as a proactive check. Supermax facilities can also contribute to maintenance of order in prisons as the individuals who are likely to create trouble are identified, segragated and placed under isolation. This enables better observation and monitoring of their activities leading to safer administration of prisons.

What is the notion of differential visibility and how does it explain the practice of racial profiling?

            Differential visibility implies external signs which distinguish a person from others due to color, appearance or special clothing leading to racial typecasting. By classifying individuals based on differential visibility which is based on the most easily recognizable external features instantaneous racial profiling occurs. Though authorities have frequently refuted such allegations, differential visibility can lead to racial profiling due to the obvious nature of variations, instinctive reaction and typecasting.

            Differential visibility fits in very easily with the concept of racial profiling which is an action undertaken based on stereotyping people based on color, race, ethnic origin, religion or ancestry rather than on reasoned and investigated grounds. The external appearance of some minorities leads to their instant recognition. Color is the most common of these. The notion that all blacks are criminals can result in a law officer apprehending people merely on the basis of their color. There are many other visible distinctions such as features of people with Mongoloid origin or those sporting a long beard or a turban which results in instantly type casting them based on easy identification of their race. Post 9/11 terror strikes many people of Islamic origin and even some Sikhs were targeted because of their visible differences rather than involvement in terrorist activities.

            This is more evident in cases where a decision is required to be made within split seconds such as in the case of driving offences. Here differential visibility is said to have had a major impact. Some minorities for instance have frequently complained that they have been accosted by the police simply because of their differential visibility, an offence notoriously known as “DWB” or driving while black. Despite many deliberations on this issue, differential visibility is such a distinct and instantly recognizable phenomenon that its linkage with racial profiling is likely to continue.


Riveland, Chase. (1999). Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations. National Institute of Corrections, U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed on 21 December 2006 at