ADX Supermax Prison
THE LAST WORST PLACE
The isolation at Colorado's
ADX prison is brutal beyond compare. So are the inmates. This
is it. The end of the line. The toughest ``supermax'' prison
in the United States. If you make
it here, the odds are you'll be an old man when you get out of custody --
if you get out.
ADX-Florence -- governmentese
for ``administrative maximum'' -- is the place where the federal
government puts its ``worst of the worst'' prisoners, mainly felons sent
from other federal prisons after they killed their fellow inmates, or on
occasion, their guards.
Among its current 400
residents, the ADX also houses a handful of high-profile prisoners, among
them Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, serving four life sentences plus 30
years. But the criminally renowned - -- less than 5 percent of the
ADX population -- are just a sideshow to the real raison d'etre of this
place: to try and extract reasonably peaceful behavior from extremely
violent career prisoners. Here, rehabilitation is hardly an issue.
The goal is to release inmates to a less restrictive prison to serve out
the rest of their days.
The ominous objective might
seem an odd match for the arid surroundings of Florence, population 4,000,
in what was once cattle and coal country, south of Colorado Springs.
But today, this is prison
country. There were already nine state-run lockups in the county
when eager Florence residents bought 600 acres and gave the land to the
federal government, which used it to build four correctional facilities,
including the ADX.
Unparalled in America, it is
the only prison specifically designed to keep every occupant in near-total
solitary confinement, rarely allowing inmates to see other prisoners.
The worst behaved men could
serve an entire sentence -- decades -- in isolation. And for some,
it doesn't matter.
They are the men, former
Warden John M. Hurley says, who have ``decided that life is inside
the walls of a prison. They don't think about what's going on in
Colorado Springs or Detroit. . . . They're not
motivated in trying to be a better citizen. If you're 42 years old
and your release date is in August 2034, you're not thinking about getting
out and getting a job.''
Prison psychology experts,
like Dr. Craig Haney of the University
of California at Santa Cruz, say this long-term solitary confinement can
have devastating effects. ``That's what is new about these so-called
supermax prisons,'' he said, ``of which Florence is the most extreme
Indeed, Florence is the leader
in a nationwide trend toward supermax prisons: in the past few years, 36
states have built strongbox facilities to house their most dangerous
inmates. In California, the most notorious are the Security Housing
Units at Pelican Bay and Corcoran, already the subjects of numerous
lawsuits and investigations into alleged cruel and unusual punishment, as
well as the staging, by guards, of deadly fights among inmates.
In state facilities, though,
isolation cells are just one segment of a large, general population
prison. At Florence, isolation is all there is.
The ADX has a three-year
program that keeps inmates in their cells 23 hours a day for the first
year, then gradually ``socializes'' them with other inmates and staff.
In their last year, prisoners can be out of their cells from 6 a.m.
to 10 p.m. and eat meals in a shared dining room, rather than having
food shoved through a slot in their steel cell door.
``We have the agency's most
violent and dangerous offenders,'' said Hurley, shortly before he retired
after nearly 30 years in the world of corrections. ``It is something
we emphasize to our staff day in and day out.''
More than half the inmates
have murdered somebody in or out of prison, said Blake Davis, Hurley's
assistant. A third of the men are in prison gangs, including the
Aryan Brotherhood, Black
Guerrilla Family and Mexican Mafia, as well as lesser known but just as
deadly outfits such as the Dirty White Boys. The average sentence is
It is spent, typically, in a
12-by-7- foot cell. Beds, desks and stools are made of poured
concrete. Toilets have a valve that shuts off the water if an inmate
tries to flood his cell by stopping it up. Sinks have no taps, just
buttons -- inmates used to unscrew the taps and use the plumbing parts as
A 42-inch window, 4 inches
wide, looks out on a one-man concrete recreation yard, which prisoners
with good behavior can eventually use.
When prison guards unlock a
cell door they quickly cover their key with an aluminum shield. Some
inmates, said prison research analyst Tom Werlich, can glance at the key,
memorize the configuration and size of its teeth and later duplicate it
from materials picked up around the prison.
``They have a lot of time to
figure these things out,'' said a guard who preferred to remain anonymous,
lest he begin to get threats from inmates' friends or relatives.
Out of reflex, the guard on a
recent tour walked to a cell shower and thumped the drain with his baton.
``They tie a weapon to a piece of string,'' he said, ``then drop it down
the drain to hide it.''
The ADX goes to great lengths
to bring everything into the cells -- books, food, television -- so that
inmates never need to leave. A 12- inch black-and-white TV in each
cell shows closed-circuit classes in psychology, education, anger
management, parenting and literacy. Religious services of numerous
denominations are piped in from a small chapel, where prison officials
display for the videocamera the religious objects appropriate for a given
The harsh quarantine is rooted
in equally harsh reality: a single, deadly day 15 years ago gave birth to
On Oct. 22, 1983, two
handcuffed inmates at the federal prison in Marion, Ill. killed two
guards in separate incidents.
In the first, ``The inmate was
walking down the hall, with his hands cuffed in front of him,'' Werlich
said. So fast and practiced was the prisoner, he ``was able to
suddenly turn and shove his cuffed hands into the cell of a friend, who
quickly unlocked the cuffs with a stolen key, handed his friend a knife
and the inmate turned around and killed the guard.'' Later that day,
another inmate used the same lethal tactic.
Up until then, Marion -- the
place where the Bureau of Prisons formerly sent its worst offenders -- was
an old-style, open population prison. When trouble broke out, the
prison was locked down and all inmates kept in their cells until a few
days later, when it would open back up. And then the killings and
assaults would resume.
For Norman Carlson, then
director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the deaths of the two guards
was the turning point.
``I decided I had no
alternative but to bite the bullet and do it'' -- institute a permanent
lockdown at Marion -- ``and hope the courts would understand,'' Carlson
``There is no way to control a
very small subset of the inmate population who show absolutely no concern
for human life,'' he said. ``These two characters ( who killed the
two guards ) had multiple life sentences. Another life sentence is
Carlson, now retired,
persuaded the government to build a new and different prison that would
effectively isolate prisoners from each other and, for the most part, from
prison staff. The result was Florence, which opened four years ago.
Since then, to the
government's credit, the $60 million ADX has not drawn the same kind of
withering criticism as its state cousins, such as Pelican Bay.
``The Bureau of Prisons has
taken a harsh punitive model and done it as well as anybody I know,'' said
Jamie Fellner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-
based human rights organization. Fellner was recently given a tour
of the prison. ``What I'd like to see is more debate within the BOP
to see how we can minimize the need for supermaxes,'' she said.
Haney, the Santa Cruz
psychologist who has testified as an expert witness in cases involving
supermax confinement, said the effect of isolation in places like Florence
is dramatic. Prisoners ``become extremely depressed and lethargic --
sleeping, lying on their bunks, staring at the ceiling, declining to go
out and exercise,'' he said. They begin to lose memory, can't
concentrate and suffer severe panic attacks, he said, or become
uncontrollably enraged over insignificant things.
Haney and others suggest that
prison officials pay more attention to the individual needs of supermax
inmates rather than spending so much time and money on high-tech prison
gadgetry and oppressive controls.
But Davis, the warden's
assistant, says extreme control, for some prisoners, is the only way to
``Behavior puts them here,''
Davis said, repeating what has become the prison motto. ``And
behavior gets them out.''
Among the prisoners at
- -- THEODORE KACZYNSKI, 56,
the Unabomber, serving four consecutive life sentences.
- -- TIMOTHY McVEIGH, 30,
sentenced to death for the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal
building which killed 168 people.
- -- TERRY NICHOLS, 43,
McVeigh's accomplice, is now serving life in prison.
- -- CHARLES HARRELSON, 59,
the father of actor Woody Harrelson, is serving two life sentences for the
murder of a federal judge.
- -- RAYMOND LUC LEVASSEUR,
51, member of a U.S. radical group, serving 40 years for bombing
buildings and attempted bombings in the 1970s.
- -- EYAD ISMOIL, 27, serving
240 years for driving the rental van holding the bomb in the World Trade
- -- YU KIKUMURA, 46, Japanese
Red Army terrorist, serving 30 years for transporting bombs in preparation
for an attack on a Navy recruiting center.
- -- LUIS FELIPE, 35, leader
of New York's Latin Kings gang, who ordered the murders of six gang
members from his jail cell and is serving a life sentence.
- -- RODNEY HAMBRICK, 33,
serving a 68-year sentence on bomb charges.
(Frank S. World)
Pubdate: Monday, December 28, 1998
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1998 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer