Latest Drug War News

GoodShop: You Shop...We Give!

Shop online at and a percentage of each purchase will be donated to our cause! More than 600 top stores are participating!

The Internet Our Website

Global and National Events Calendar

Bottoms Up: Guide to Grassroots Activism

Prisons and Poisons

November Coalition Projects

Get on the Soapbox! with Soap for Change

November Coalition: We Have Issues!

November Coalition Local Scenes

November Coalition Multimedia Archive

The Razor Wire
Bring Back Federal Parole!
November Coalition: Our House

Stories from Behind The WALL

November Coalition: Nora's Blog

September 11, 2007 - Washington Post (DC)

My Time At Supermax

By Andrew Cohen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I went to prison yesterday. Seriously. I went on a brief and heavily-controlled media tour of the so-called "Supermax" federal prison facility in Florence, Colo., home to high-profile convicts like Zacarias Moussaoui, Theodore Kaczynski, Terry Nichols, Richard Reid and, probably soon enough, Jose Padilla.

I've written a more somber piece about my visit to the ADX part of the famous prison complex in Southern Colorado (which is actually four separate prisons and a prison camp, each at a different level of security). In this post I want to share with you some of the surreal details I noticed during the 100 minutes or so we were allowed to tour an actual cellblock or two. Think Hunter Thompson meets "Shawshank Redemption" meets "Raising Arizona."

When you travel by road from Denver to Florence along the interstate and then along State Highway 115, you are traveling through truly beautiful country; a land where you can grab breakfast at the Coyotes Coffee Den or grab some produce at the Happy Apple Farm. In the mood for the eccentric? "Bring your mother-in-law" screams the flashing neon side outside of the Apple Tree Cafe. Once I got to the Rockwellian town of Florence I had to wait behind a school bus picking up kids -- less than a mile from a place that houses murderer after murderer.

I checked in at the gate and as I traveled up the winding road to the prison, patrol cars blocked every turnout and "side street." The flag was at half-staff in honor of the victims of 9/11, but we were told that the timing of our visit was just a coincidence and a matter of scheduling. As we walked toward the room in which we would have our initial briefing, we passed motivational signs and posters.

Later, along the walls toward one of the cellblocks, we saw more signs: "Dignity of All," "Professionalism," "Loyalty," "Teamwork," "Responsiveness" and "Integrity." The words are for the guards, of course. The inmates never get close to that part of the prison.

The facility calls itself the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," a slogan that is emblazoned on t-shirts for sale in the lobby (beyond the metal detector and the pat-down and the place to take a Polaroid of every visitor). I picked the "Alcatraz" shirt over the one that said "Pen State" and, really, can you blame me? Another option was a badge that read "We Secure What Most Fear"; try pinning that on your kid's Boy Scout uniform. (Some of the items -- the prison mugs, I think -- were on sale.)

There are approximately 3,200 men in prison at Florence and nearly 500 who reside in the "Administrative Maximum Security" wing. Of those, about 30 are truly in "lockdown" mode, including some of the famous names noted above.

When we got into the "briefing room," Warden Ron Wiley encouraged us to grab some fruit, coffee and danish and then barked, "Don't sit" when we had found our places at the conference table. We didn't sit. Wiley said first that he was concerned about the looks on our faces and wanted to reassure us that we would be safe from the inmates.

I thought to myself: We aren't worried about the inmates. We're worried because we have become your prisoners for the next few hours. By ordering us not to sit, Warden Wiley was exerting his control over us. And it worked. Spending even that brief time in a completely controlled environment, where you are literally not free to walk from here to there, had a disorienting effect.

Contrary to rumor, the warden told us, Supermax is not underground, and the prisoners are not left to simply rot in their cells. There has never been an escape from the facility, and no corrections officers ever have been the victim of a major assault (like a beating or stabbing) as opposed to a "minor assault" (like having an inmate throw a piece of paper at a guard.

Most of the convicts each live in an 86-square-foot cell with green, foam, fireproof mattress and a cement table and unmovable stool. When they are out of their cell, until they reach a destination (say, a cage to exercise in) they are always in handcuffs.

All of the windows in the cells face other windows in other cells. There are five positions for staff doctors within the entire facility but only two doctors currently fill those positions, and one of those doctors is a psychiatrist. This means that there is one doctor for approximately 3,200 prisoners. There are 11 positions for physician's assistants, and eight people fill those slots. There are eight EMTs on staff and no operating rooms. A lot of the medical work is done via teleconference when possible. Each inmate has a "distress" button he can push if he is stricken.

"I love what I do," Warden Wiley told us. "I love the profession of corrections."

In the prison "recreation" room I saw shelves lined with movies like "Shrek" and "James and the Giant Peach" and "Mary Poppins." I saw puzzles and checkerboards and at least one boxed game of Trivial Pursuit. In the library I saw books about sports and magazines like Ebony. The literature and periodicals are switched around at random to discourage the inmates from using messages in books or magazines to communicate with one another. When the woman who ran the library wasn't quick enough with her summary, Wiley barked us out of the room. "Walking and talking," he said loudly as we all we ushered out.

The inmates who aren't allowed to watch television receive censored newspapers approximately 30 days after they are initially published, which means that yesterday inmates were learning about the world on Aug. 11. The Warden told us that only occasionally do the guards find contraband -- like "intoxicants" made out of ketchup or "sissy shanks" made out of newspapers. Currently, the high-security and medium-security compounds at Florence are overflowing with inmates -- 50 percent or more over capacity for each.

So did the tour achieve its purpose? Did officials convince me and my news colleagues that "The Alcatraz of the Rockies" is less like a dungeon and more like other maximum security federal prisons around the country? Let me put it this way: I'll know the answer to that question when I get to see the whole Supermax facility, including those places within it where inmates are confined under Special Administrative Measures -- and of course I'll never get to see that. We saw, in other words, the most "positive" parts of the prison and certainly not the least attractive ones.

I applaud the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department for giving us the opportunity to see a tiny sliver of the place -- it's long overdue and certainly better than nothing. But my lasting impressions of my morning at Supermax are of the quiet of the place and of the hundreds and hundreds of remote-controlled cameras. The level of control exercised over virtually every single function is remarkable, and for most of the inmates there, this soulless, artificial world is all they will ever again know.

I'm not saying that the inmates don't deserve that fate. I'm just saying I took no satisfaction in seeing it.

For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Questions or problems? Contact