Twenty years ago, a new kind of prison was taking America by storm. The supermax prison was designed to incapacitate dangerous criminals by locking them down in stark isolation, sometimes for years on end.

So have the supermaxes lived up to their promise of stopping violent criminals?

Pinta Bound

Pelican Bay State Prison in California is one of America’s biggest supermaxes, but it is not just a supermax. It’s also headquarters to some of America’s biggest and most violent prison gangs. Experts say these gangs control crime far outside prison walls.

Read the transcript of the hour-long documentary.

Hear extended excerpts from former gang members and prison officials about prison gangs and life afterwards.

Read Michael Montgomery's account of reporting from inside prison.


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This documentary was produced in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Go Forth and Sin No More

The idea behind the supermax is not new. Nearly 200 years ago, America’s first penitentiary in Philadelphia locked men in solitary confinement, giving them only a Bible. Since then, America has used prisons to either punish criminals, or reform them.


Once a prisoner is in a gang, it’s tough to get out. Leaving the gang is too painful, and too dangerous. At Pelican Bay, some inmates have to choose between staying in lockdown and betraying the gang.

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