When an inmate arrives at ADX, the United States Penitentiary Administrative-Maximum Facility known as “Supermax”, one thing is instantly obvious. He’s being cut off from the outside world.
“As soon as they come through the door, you see it in their faces,” says former ADX warden Robert Hood. “That’s when it really hits you. You’re looking at the beauty of the Rocky Mountains in the backdrop. That is the last time you will ever see it.”
“The Supermax is home to the prison system’s most violent inmates. They’ve been in jail. They’ve been in prison. They’ve killed staff. They’ve killed a visitor,” Hood continued. “They’ve earned, if you will, the right to go to Supermax. These are terrorists. These are disruptive gang members. They’re spies.”
It’s nicknamed “Alcatraz of the Rockies”, and the very worst inmates from America’s prison network are sent there in buses, special security vehicles and even Black Hawk helicopters.
ADX sits on 37 acres in Florence, Colorado, about 100 miles south of Denver. It’s one of three correctional facilities in the Florence Federal Correctional Complex.
Patrols cruising the grounds are heavily armed, and there are 12 gun towers along the imposing walls.
Opened in 1994, ADX was designed from the ground up as a control unit facility – one that’s meant for prisoners who have shown they have no concern for human life. They’re the worst of the worst: too dangerous, too high-profile or too great a national security risk for even maximum security prisons. These include the leaders of violent gangs who had continued to issue orders to their members while in confinement.
About 410 male inmates are housed at Supermax, assigned to one of six security levels.
It’s a stark environment. There’s no noise, no mess and no prisoners walking the hallways. Robert Hood says that when detainees complained he would tell them, “This place is not designed for humanity. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.”
The population at ADX includes Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted for planning the September 11 attacks, Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, turncoat FBI agent Robert Hanssen, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and former Bonanno crime family boss Vincent Basciano.
But most of the inmates are there because of their history of violent crimes committed against corrections officers and fellow inmates, including murder.
The majority of the facility is above ground, but there’s an underground corridor linking the cell blocks to the lobby. Inmates spend 23 hours a day in lock down. They’re taken out for five hours of private recreation each week, during which time they’re escorted by a minimum of three officers
The cells have a desk, a stool, and a bed, all of which are constructed of poured concrete. Toilets shut off if they’re blocked, showers run on timers to avoid potential for flooding and there are no water taps on the sinks. There’s a double set of sliding solid-metal doors on each cell. Inmates are unable to see each other, and soundproofing prevents any communication – even by Morse code.
The only view from the windows is of the roof and sky, so prisoners have no idea where they are in the complex. Because of that, it’s virtually impossible to plan an escape. For the same reason, they exercise in a pit that resembles an empty swimming pool. It allows walking just 10 steps in a straight line or 30 in a circle.
No telecommunication with the outside world is permitted, and food is delivered by correction officers. Inmates are under constant surveillance by motion detectors and cameras. The prison’s control center has a panic button that can instantly close all of the 1400 steel doors in the facility.
In extreme situations, up to 148 prisoners can be contained in Z-Unit, which is also referred to as “The Black Hole”. It’s completely darkened and fully soundproofed. And each of its cells has a full set of body restraints built into its concrete bed.
Inmates have little contact except for guards and prison staff. Only members of their legal team and immediate family are permitted to visit, and they sit on the other side of a glass window. Conversations are held by telephone, and those not involving attorneys are monitored.
Laura Rovner, a University of Denver College of Law professor who has represented ADX prisoners, said that reports of conditions at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba compare favorably with ADX.
“For many people, being confined at ADX in what will amount to a life sentence there really is kind of a form of living death,” she said. “It just takes everything away from you. Your existence is limited to the four walls of this small cell and frankly not much else.”