Super maximum security prisons, usually abbreviated to super-maxes, are a particularly troubling developing trend in the American penal system. They are whole prisons run on the system of permanent solitary confinement. Inmates usually spend 23 hours a day locked alone in their cells, and are allowed one hour of recreation time, shackled and handcuffed, and always under guard.

Both the federal and state governments operate super-maxes; their stated purpose is for confining prisoners who cause trouble in prison, or who, because they are gang leaders or for similar reasons, cannot be confined with the general population. However, in many states, which are anxious to fill them to justify the costs of construction (as much as $140,000 per bed), inmates can be transferred to super-maxes for as little as being involved in a scuffle with another inmate.

Human rights groups are often not allowed inside super-maxes, for what are described as security reasons, but there are persistent allegations of serious abuses in many super-maxes. Most inmates claim serious racism on the part of prison guards, constant and unnecessary use of the cattle prods many guards use to keep prisoners in line, and arbitrary use of "four-point restraints", where prisoners considered a danger to themselves or others are strapped down to beds by all four of their limbs. Many activists claim the United States is violating both the international treaties on basic human rights and its own constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment by operating these facilities.

Penologists and psychologists also question the basic methods of the super-maxes. Obviously, rehabilitation is out of the question when prisoners spend their entire lives under lockdown instead of say, learning a trade; the state's answer is generally that prisoners who end up in super-maxes have placed themselves beyond rehabilitation anyway. There are questions about the psychological effects of placing somebody in a locked concrete room for 23 hours a day, with no library rights or access to the outside world. What happens in the mind of such a person, and what happens when they're released into the general population?