Solitary Confinement and Supermax Prisons

A closer look at the latest U.S. export to Brazil – the supermax prison system.

| Summer 2016

In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it,is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville

It is not good for man to be alone. — Genesis 2:18

Cascavel is Portuguese for “rattlesnake.”

Cascavel is also a small city in the Brazilian state of Paraná, close to the Argentine border. It’s two short plane rides away from São Paulo, and the hour-long drive from the mini-airport to my destination, an even littler town named Catanduvas, is flooded by charmed vistas. A fingernail of a leftover moon dangles in the morning sky. Opulent greenery is disrupted by odd-looking pine trees shaped like upside-down rainbows on matchsticks — Dalí paintings come to life.

My sabbatical is over, but I’ve managed to steal away for a few days from teaching English 101 to a newly enrolled cohort of students in the Prison-to-College Pipeline. Pulling up to my destination, I see something disturbingly familiar, from almost all my prison travels. The Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, Brazil’s first federal supermaximum prison, looks like a slice of the United States plunked down on foreign shores. I’ve come to learn more about this home to the so-called worst of the worst prisoners in a country making dramatic strides in mass incarceration.

Brazil’s 550,000-strong prison population is the fastest growing in the Americas, having nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years or so. I want to take a hard look at the practice of solitary confinement in top-security “supermax” prisons, which in the last 25 years began proliferating all over the world but are still relatively new to Brazil. In America alone, it’s estimated that some 80,000 individuals live in solitary. If you include jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile and military facilities in the count, the total is more like 100,000. Parents who created solitary confinement cells in their homes would likely be prosecuted for child abuse, yet thousands of American juveniles spend time in solitary confinement. It’s a reality I find almost impossible to wrap my head around.