Has the self-fulfilling prophecy led to an increase in violence in supermax prisons?

The self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when expectations influence behavior in a manner that will confirm the original expectations (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). For example, guards expect inmates in a supermax prison to be aggressive or violent and thus, treat inmates as violent individuals. This in turn causes the inmates to behave violently – ultimately confirming the guards expectation of the inmate. Furthermore, guards may behave with racial prejudice and harassment which has the potential to turn an inmate into a hateful, aggressive individual. Austin and Irwin (2001) examined this problem closely within the prison environment and point out that an inmate may be treated as a violent criminal, regardless if they are or not. This may result in exacerbating violent qualities in inmates or create these qualities in the first place.

Supermax prisons exist with the purpose of housing the most dangerous criminals around the country. Inmates are sent to supermax prison when they are deemed to be resistant to adherence of prison regulations, pose a threat to the prison staff and fellow inmates and exhibit violent or disruptive behavior (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008). Within the climate of a supermax, prisoners are confined in solitary housing units for up to 23 hours per day (King et al., 2008). The treatment of supermax inmates often foregoes the “common decency and dignity” of treatment towards human beings in favor of cruel and harsh tactics (Madrid v. Gomex, 1995). In a prison, inmates are vulnerable to inhumane treatment, racial prejudice and harassment for an extended period of time. Toch (1990) has uncovered that a constant negative environment will only enhance negative behaviors and desensitize inmates.

King et al. (2008) have pointed out that within supermax prisons, inmates are well aware of their labels as “the worst of the worst” and treated as such (p. 162). Furthermore, officers employed at supermax prisons are briefed repeatedly that they are in contact with violent and dangerous individuals and emphasize the threat of death by inmates (King et al., 2008). While it is true that inmates can behave violently and never abide by prison rules, this cannot be the case for every single prisoner. Therefore, treatment for the masses should not be based on the minority. On a smaller, less intense scale, the Stanford prison simulation revealed the capability of power and social roles within prison culture that can turn guards to behave in a very cruel manner (Schneider et al., 2012). A similar behavioral pattern can be seen within supermax prisons and guard treatment towards inmates. The social roles and norms of prison guards are often associated with the negative treatment of inmates because guards feel superior and view the inmates as “less than human” for being sent to a supermax prison (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008, p. 164).

King et al. (2012) focus on the Pelican Bay supermax as an example of the self fulfilling prophecy and its repercussions within prison climates. Pelican Bay has the reputation of being one of the worst prisons in the country. Pelican Bay is described as an environment that is filled with “harassment, sensory deprivation, and isolation” which leads to an environment that further enhances inmate aggression (Wienstein & Cummins, 1996). The solitary housing unit of a supermax exposes inmates to exactly this environment for 23 hours a day contributing to anger, frustration, loneliness, aggression, etc. Weinstein and Cummins (1996) defend inmates saying that even the “‘worst of the worst’ – are members of the human community” (p.1).

The environment, expectations and behaviors of both the guards and inmates contribute to the self fulfilling prophecy and enhanced violence in supermax prisons. Guards are trained to dehumanize criminals and use aggression in supermax prisons with the expectation that these criminals will behave violently. Inmates in turn will react to the aggressive treatment and harassment with violence. Additionally, inmates believe if they have made it to the supermax, they must be a terrible criminal and so they behave in such a manner to confirm their beliefs and expectations. In order to eliminate or reduce the cycle of the self fulling prophecy from occurring within supermax prisons, guards must first be dedicated to believing inmates are human beings (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008). Johnson (2002) explains that guards have the ability to promote helping activities and setting examples within the prison environment. Rather than further enhance an inmates hate, anger and aggression, guards should be civil and use tactics to promote positive behavior. These changes will allow a climate of basic human dignity and reduce the enhancement of aggressive and violent behavior due to the effects of the self fulfilling prophecy.


Austin, J. & Irwin, J. (2001). It’s about time: American’s imprisonment binge (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Johnson, R. (2002). Hard time (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

King, K., Steiner, B., & Breach, S. (2008). Violence in the supermax: A self-fulfilling prophecy. The Prison Journal, 88(1), 144-168. doi:10.1177/0032885507311000.

Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995).

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Toch, H. & Klofas, J. (1982). Alienation and desire for job enrichment among correction officers. Federal Probation, 46(1), 35-44.

Toch, H. (1990). The good old days in the joint. In T. Flanagan (Ed.), Long-term imprisonment: Policy science and correctional practice (pp. 186-196). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wienstein, C. & Cummins, E. (1996). The crime of punishment: Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison. San Francisco, CA: South End Press.

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  1. @alm5972

    I appreciate your feedback however, I do disagree with you. Some individuals simply make mistakes in their life, that doesn’t mean they should not be treated with basic human decency like not getting spit on. Yes, criminals are in prison because they broke the law. Yes, criminals are in supermax environments when they are too unruly, but does this mean that they are subhuman? No. Criminals who are dangerous should be kept separate however, as Toch (1990) pointed out – these environments only exacerbate problems and desensitize inmates. Perhaps, if the prison climate were to remove components such as racial prejudice and harassment in guard behavior – the wheels of change can began rolling.

    While I respect that you do not believe the guards hold responsibility in the effects of the self fulling prophecy, the guards still serve as a key player in the advancement of violence. As you say, it is a two way street and therefore both sides should adopt new attitudes, however the guards can serve as role models and I believe that is a positive change for every party involved. Additionally, the stigmas are already associated with prison climate, supermax inmates, etc and at this point, the self-fulfilling prophecy is merely just continuing expectations and confirmation of those expectations. This is an issue that has deep roots and therefore, it is not as simple to say supermax inmates are violent because they were always violent. Often times these individuals are in and out of prisons from a very young age, being exposed to harassment and racism each time. Eventually, one can understand how a criminal can become so hard and desensitized. Is this an excuse for violence? Absolutely not. However, applied social psychologists have the ability to dig deeper and understand what may have exacerbated the violence and aggression in these inmates and eventually contribute to their lifelong sentence at a supermax prison. Using theories such as the self-fulfilling prophecy and being able to comprehend how environments have an effect on these individuals allows for insight into the minds of these criminals. The hope being to reduce or eliminate negative expectations early on and eventually, reduce aggression and violence. By focusing on the key aspects that contribute to the root of the problem, applied social psychologists can develop interventions to target this flaw in the system.

    For example, the base problem are the expectations that both criminals and prison guards have. By creating a program that can alter these expectations perhaps criminals will never reach the stage in their behavior that a supermax environment would be necessary. Prison guards should go through training that will prepare them for any number of situations however, neutral rather than negative beliefs and expectations should be encouraged. This would not mean encouraging prison guards to befriend criminals however, this would allow for guards to be wary but not expectant of violence and aggression. By not expecting a certain behavior, the entire notion of the self fulfilling prophecy can be addressed. Prison guards would enforce the rules amongst both guards and inmates which would include a zero tolerance policy for violence and aggression for guards and inmates (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008). The zero tolerance policy can be established early on to reduce racial prejudice, harassment, and dehumanizing behaviors that have the potential to exacerbate violence and aggression in criminals. This may be considered minor steps at a major issue in our country however, it is a step that could alter the prison climate in a positive way. It is not the goal of this country to continue to lock criminals up indefinitely but rather, find methods to modify the system for the better.


    King, K., Steiner, B., & Breach, S. (2008). Violence in the supermax: A self-fulfilling prophecy. The Prison Journal, 88(1), 144-168. doi:10.1177/0032885507311000.

    Toch, H. (1990). The good old days in the joint. In T. Flanagan (Ed.), Long-term imprisonment: Policy science and correctional practice (pp. 186-196). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  2. Back in the 60s and early 70s when California was going through their massive crime increase, the prisons got inundated with violent offenders and in response to the increase in prison violence they created adjustment centers. These adjustment centers were reserved for the most violent of offenders and what intended to be a short term solution, turned out to be what we now know as supermax prisons. There has to be a way to keep the most violent of offenders away from those who are less prone to violence, and this was the answer. The most violent prisoners are typically members of a gang, have connections both inside and outside of the prison walls, and violence amongst these individuals typically escalates once admitted to prison.

    Prisons like Pelican Bay were the answer at the time and were “designed for inmates who are management cases, habitual criminals, prison gang members and violence-oriented maximum custody inmates” (King, et al, 2008). And while I completely agree that the inmate-guard interactions within these supermax prisons do give a great example of the self-fulfilling prophecy in action, I cannot say that I agree that “guards should be civil and use tactics to promote positive behavior.” Prisons are two way streets and I absolutely do not feel that the obligation to promote change lies on the shoulders of the guards here. After all, regardless of the stereotype, these are the worst of the worst prisoners. If the prisoners want to be treated differently, they should behave in a way that warrants positive treatment. And I am not sure how we should refer to the inmates that make up Pelican Bay for example; call a spade a spade. If they do not want to be treated in this manner in prison, the solution is simple – don’t break the law and don’t get yourself thrown in prison. Even within supermax prisons like Pelican Bay there are tiers of offenders and those who are less violent are granted the opportunity to be involved in work around the prison. But yes, there are those offenders who have proven to be too violent to be mixed in with the general population. And while I do attest to the fact that these inmates are indeed humans, there is no leeway to grant them privileges that other less violent inmates are allowed, i.e. time amongst the general population, work opportunities, better treatment. I am not saying that these inmates should be treated violently without provocation, but it is imperative to the safety of the staff as well as the less violent inmates that these severely violent criminals are kept separate and if that means in isolation 23 hours a day then so be it.

    I realize that my view here will not be easy to take and many people will not agree with my stance, but having a mother and step-father who are both veteran police officers, a father who is a retired Navy Seal and retired National Security Agency employee, a grandfather who is a prosecuting attorney, and a brother-in-law who is a prison guard, I have heard too many stories of prisons trying to work with the most violent inmates only to have something horrible to occur as a result; countless amounts of times where this approach has been attempted, it has backfired and cost the lives of many innocent people. One last thing I must mention here…prisons run off of tax payer money and in order to incorporate additional training to the guards of supermax prisons would mean that that cost would be passed down to us – the taxpayers. And with a supermax prison the annual budget is already ridiculous. Pelican Bay’s annual budget is nearly $200 million (King, et al, 2008). That’s $200 million a year just to house and feed these criminals, and any money added to that budget is more of a strain on the population of people who choose to obey the law and that is beyond unfair.

    I do not condone guards treating inmates in ways that they do not deserve, and I do not condone violence except in the cases of self-defense, but working in a prison is a very difficult job and working in a supermax prison is even harder. The responsibility for change should not fall on the shoulders of the guards within these prisons. I understand that a self-fulfilling prophecy exists here, and I understand that considering my family background I am slightly biased when it comes to the treatment of inmates, but there is more to consider here than the state of mind and feelings of hardened criminals. The expenses associated with running the nation’s prisons is astronomical and the safety of the staff should be the utmost concern. These guards choose to work in these positions and most of them are respectable and respectful employees, all of which have family that they need to go home to at night. And if keeping the “worst of the worst” in solitary confinement ensures that, then that is how it should be.

    King, K., Steiner, B., & Breach, S. R. (2008). Violence in the Supermax: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The Prison Journal, 88(144), 144-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0032885507311000

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