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America's Florence Supermax Prison

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The worst of the worst end up in Florence Supermax Prison in Colorado. These are men who have been extremely violent in other institutions and they join those convicted of terrorism in a facility where they have no contact with other prisoners or guards.

ADX Florence.

ADX Florence.

Designing the Supermax

In October 1983, two members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacy crime organization, stabbed and killed two prison guards at the Marion, Illinois federal prison. At the time, Norman Carlson was director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The death of the two guards prompted him to order the building of a prison that offered greater protection for corrections officers and for inmates from the most violent offenders.

The result is the prison in Florence, Colorado called an Administrative Maximum Facility (ADMAX or ADX). It was opened in 1994 to house inmates who had been found impossible to control even in maximum security prisons. Currently, there are about 400 residents.

The building is constructed of reinforced, poured concrete and cells measure seven feet by 12 feet. Each cell has a desk, stool, and bed made mostly of concrete. The cells are soundproofed to prevent inmates communicating with one another.

There is a shower that is on a timer to prevent floods, a toilet that shuts off if blocked, and a wash basin that has buttons instead of taps.

There is a small slit of a window through which prisoners can only see the side of a building; this is so they cannot figure out their location in the facility.

The complex, with 1,400 remotely controlled doors, is designed to be virtually impossible to escape from. Outside, the complex is surrounded by a 12-foot high fence that is topped with razor wire; in addition, there are 12 guard towers. The grounds are patrolled by armed officers and attack dogs backed up by motion sensors and cameras.

A cell in ADX Florence.

A cell in ADX Florence.

In his 1860s novel House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

The Prisoner Routine

Upon arrival at ADX Florence, each inmate begins a three-year period of almost complete isolation. During that time, prisoners are locked alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. The one hour is set aside for exercise.

Guards open a cell door remotely giving the prisoner access to what is called a “dog run” that leads to a recreation pen. This is a concrete pit known as the “empty swimming pool” that allows for inmates to walk in a 30-foot circle, always alone.

There is a graduated program that allows prisoners who behave to earn a few meagre privileges such as having a black and white television in their cell. However, there's no watching National Football League games or comedies; the only programming available is either religious or educational. Good behaviour can lead to having meals in a communal dining area and extended periods for exercise and recreation.

Three times a day meals are delivered through a slot in the cell's steel door. But, it's prison food so it's a long way from being gourmet. It has been said that anybody coming out of prison saying the food was good, will likely re-offend and be sent back. But, this is hardly likely to be the case with ADX Florence because only a few inmates will complete their sentences before they die.

The idea behind the prison is that inmates are left alone with their thoughts, perhaps, to reflect on the bad choices they have made. However, it must seem to those housed in ADX Florence that they are dead while still being conscious and this can be ruinous for their mental health.

“The Supermax is life after death . . . In my opinion, it’s far much worse than death.”

— Former ADX Florence warden Robert Hood

The Negative Effects of Prolonged Isolation

A lot of people in ADX Florence don't handle the prolonged sensory deprivation well.

Dr. Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz, specializes in prison psychology. He says that prisoners “become extremely depressed and lethargic—sleeping, lying on their bunks, staring at the ceiling, declining to go out and exercise . . .” But, those are the milder effects of supermax incarceration.

Here's Charles Montaldo, writing for thoughtco.com, “Some prisoners mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils, and whatever other objects they can obtain. Others swallow razor blades, nail clippers, broken glass, and other dangerous objects.”

There are suicides even though inmates under under constant surveillance. Many attempts are thwarted by guards but at least eight prisoners have succeeded in taking their own lives in ADX Florence.

Some inmates become enraged by something minor and end up ranting or screaming for hours on end. Then, there are hallucinations and inmates carrying on long conversations with voices they hear in their heads. Others smear feces on the walls of their cells or go on hunger strikes as a protest.

ADX Florence and the Mentally Ill

There is a rule that states that the Bureau of Prisons cannot send mentally ill felons to a supermax prison. And, writes Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic, “The Eighth Amendment requires prison staff everywhere to adequately diagnose and treat mentally ill prisoners . . .”

It appears ADX Florence routinely violates both those provisions, and this became the subject of a lawsuit in 2012.

The first paragraph of the lawsuit reads as follows: “Currently, BOP [Bureau of Prisons] turns a blind eye to the needs of the mentally ill at ADX and to deplorable conditions of confinement that are injurious, callous, and inhumane to those prisoners. No civilized society treats its mentally disabled citizens with a comparable level of deliberate indifference to their plight.”

Some inmates sent to ADX Florence because of incorrigible behaviour elsewhere in the prison system have already been diagnosed with a mental illness and placed on medication. But, Florence had a rule that said psychotropic drugs could not be administered to inmates, so those afflicted plunged into a mental illness hell.

Other prisoners, as we've seen, develop mental disorders caused by the nature of their imprisonment.

After five years of haggling back and forth a federal judge agreed to a settlement in December 2016.

Writing for Prison Legal News, Derek Gilna notes that “Included in the terms of the settlement were improved screening of prisoners’ psychiatric issues before they are placed in ADX, better staff training on how to recognize and respond to symptoms of mental illness, and the appointment of outside professionals to monitor mental health treatment programs at the facility. As a result of the lawsuit, the BOP has already moved more than 100 prisoners diagnosed with mental health problems to other facilities with treatment programs.”

Even with the improvements, ADX Florence is still a horrifying place, but then, so are the people who live there.

Bonus Factoids

Here are a few of the men held in ADX Florence:

  • Terry Nichols is serving 161 consecutive life sentences for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed 168 people.
  • Al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui, who played a central role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is serving six life sentences.
  • Eric Rudolph, a member the Christian Army of God, is the Atlanta Olympic games bomber of 1996 that killed three people. He is serving four consecutive life sentences.
  • Richard Reid is the hapless shoe bomber who tried, in 2001, to detonate explosives on a flight from Paris to Miami. He is dealing with three life sentences plus 110 years.
  • A life sentence was handed to the boss of the Chicago Outfit, James Marcello. He had a role in 18 murders and the whole suite of mob activities such as extortion, loan sharking, and racketeering.
  • Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was head of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel and he got life plus 30 years.
  • Robert Hanssen was an FBI agent involved in counterintelligence but he spent 20 years feeding classified information to the Soviet Union and, later, Russia—15 consecutive life sentences.
  • Tyler Bingham, a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, earned his spot in ADX Florence for participating in violent prison gang activities, such as murder, elsewhere. He has a life sentence.
  • Michael Swango was a physician who poisoned four of his patients and may have been involved in dozens of other murders. He requested incarceration at ADX Florence because he was concerned for his safety in other institutions. He'll be there until he dies.
  • Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the surviving brother of the two that planted a bomb at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured 280 others. He is currently under a death sentence but could spend decades in solitary confinement in ADX Florence before he is executed, if ever.

You Be the Judge

Sources

  • “Maximum Security Federal Prison: ADX Supermax.” Charles Montaldo, thoughtco.com, January 29, 2020.
  • “The Last Worst Place / The Isolation at Colorado's ADX Prison Is Brutal Beyond Compare. So Are the Inmates.” Michael Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle, December 28, 1998.
  • “What’s Life Like in Supermax prison?” Ray Sanchez and Alexandra Field, CNN, June 25, 2015.
  • “An American Gulag: Descending into Madness at Supermax.” Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, June 18, 2012.
  • “Federal Court Approves Landmark BOP ADX Mental Health Settlement.” Derek Gilna, Prison Legal News, September 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor