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Supermax: how much freedom can you take away from someone?

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Background information for the Supermax discussion


    At the foot of the Rockies and the edge of the Colorado plains lies one of the world’s most secure prisons: Supermax, Fremont County, Colorado. At the foot of the Rockies and the edge of the Colorado plains lies one of the world’s most secure prisons: Supermax, Fremont County, Colorado.

    The Administrative Maximum is all built on sensory privation The Administrative Maximum is all built on sensory privation , according to Allen Rexford, a correctional officer at Supermax and vice-president of the prison branch of the American Federation of Government Employees.

    Photos © Philippe Brault

    Letter from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington Letter from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington refusing the Prison Valley crew access to Supermax. The only occasion the media were allowed in was September 11, 2007 and even then only a select group.

    Prison and isolation conditions inside Supermax are all built on sensory deprivation and especially tough. How much freedom can you take away from someone?

    Supermax’s official name is United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, Florence, which has given it one of its nicknames, ADX Florence, its other one being the Alcatraz of the Rockies. Supermax is a high security facility run by the US Federal Government. It is located to the south of Florence in Fremont County, Colorado. Of the four facilities belonging to the huge Florence Federal Correctional Complex (FCC), Supermax, its flagship, is furthest from the road. Over 20% of its (roughly) 400 inmates are accused of having tried to kill another prisoner in another prison.

    Supermax was opened in 1994 (its construction cost 60 million dollars) and was designed to house the prisoners the Department considered the most dangerous in America. The US’s main terrorist convicts are imprisoned there. Several heads of gangs with nationwide operations, a few mafia bosses, serial killers and white supremacist leaders are serving life sentences there. The only human contact the highest security prisoners are entitled to is with their wardens. They spend up to 23 hours a day in isolation in their cells that measure 10 feet by 6 and are completely soundproof.

    According to lawyer Colleen McGuire, who we interviewed for Prison Valley, Sensory deprivation techniques are barbaric practices which the U.S. government has exported from U.S. maxi-max prisons to Guantanamo.

    In 2007, Amnesty International wrote: Inside ADX Florence, the only Supermax (level 6) federal prison in the United States, the prison population is allowed to participate in recreational groups at each of the three security levels; the prisoners in the High Security Area (HSA) of ADX Florence are entitled to televisions and radios and can do manual activities in their cell, unless this right is removed for disciplinary reasons. The isolation cells in ADX Florence have a view onto an outside recreation area.
    Cruel and inhuman: Conditions of isolation for detainees at Guantánamo Bay [PDF]

    To try and calm down rising criticism, the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington arranged a restricted Supermax Tour in 2007 for some of the country’s most influential media – the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Fox News, CBS’ 60 Minutes programme and two local papers. That was on September 11, 2007, exactly six years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, which provided just the right backdrop to the media visit and the prison itself. That was when a former warden described the area as a clean version of hell, an expression we quoted at the beginning of the film Prison Valley.
    CBS News

    Several unions have also stressed the lack of personnel. When it was opened, Supermax had 372 wardens for 265 prisoners; in 2001 there were 331 staff for 386 prisoners. In 2005, two prisoners died in jail.

    In 2009, Supermax was suggested on several occasions as a place where prisoners from Guantanamo might be held when that camp was disbanded. Those plans have apparently been shelved, but they had local people worried for a while.

    Documents and links

    Some of the Supermax inmates:

    • Theodore Kaczynski Theodore Kaczynski, aka Unabomber, sentenced to life imprisonment for a mail bombing campaign that claimed three lives.
      Photo © AFP
    • Zacarias Moussaoui Zacarias Moussaoui, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006 for conspiring to kill US citizens as part of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
      Photo © AFP
    • Timothy McVeigh Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing using a truck-mounted explosive device (168 victims). Executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.
      Photo © SIPA
    • Richard Reid Richard Reid, aka the Shoe-Bomber, sentenced to 120 years' imprisonment in 2003 for attempting to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes on American Airlines flight 63.
      Photo © AFP
    • Terry Nichols Terry Nichols, convicted of organizing the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (168 victims).
      Photo © AFP
    Posted by David Dufresne Prison Valley Team
    Dec 22nd 2009 (edited May 14th 2010)
    To report corrections and clarifications, contact Prison Valley Team
    When someone has commited a horrid crime what do you expect? And just so you know, these people earn their way there! They have it better than you think! Why don't you guys visit the AZ prison, this is nothing!
    My reaction? The flavor of these documentary reports, video's, testimonies, describe the adequacy of our prisons, in particular, this one, and their convicts' lives today being in, the "here and now", of what became of their lives after they were accused and found guilty of their atrocious crimes they committed. I feel no pity, no remorse, no "sorry for you" feelings of any kind, for these lifetime prisoners. That they are alive is "good enough for them!", some say, that's more consideration than they gave to their victims!!! To that point, how gracious our justice and prison systems really are, is just that, it is what it is period. That it happens to be in a town that happens to be in Colorado, in the middle of the desert, all the much better, to keep the chance of them, anyone of them, to escape under any circumstances, protects all of us, whom they wouldn't think twice to blow up or kill if they had a chance, to add another notch in their deviant behavior resume! Prisons weren't made to be comfortable, and I am sure there are those in second world countries that are far far worse that this one, or any number of U.S.Prisons in comparison, or for that matter in an analogy how would they suffer if they were caught as a prisoner of war in an uncivilized society paying for their crimes, they would be shot or stoned to death!! I did however, appreciate the excellent coverage, opinions, dedication to a most informative site, a very well documented effort on these issues, the people living their lives in prison towns, employees at every level who work there, from the wardens to the janitors and head cooks, for their lives are imprisoned by this system as well. What goes around comes around, so they say, these convicts got exactly that, life in prison, no mater how many life sentences they got, as dangerous as they are, it saves the lives of countless more in all walks of life. Again, it is what it is, sad but a necessity.
    +100 Sharon
    You are exactly correct!! These types of inmates ARE the incorrigibles........the ones who should be locked up for their lives, or put to death. They have proven they have nothing to provide society. Our concerns come to the ones who MIGHT actually become productive members of society given the right tools. How can you lock up an 18 yo kid for 20-30 years, the release them to the street and expect them to be productive? Minimal education, minimal job skills, and no understanding of life outside the walls. No matter how many time you tell them you can’t just kill someone for disrespecting you, they see it everyday......for years! It's no wonder they cant function in the outside world..... Do I know the answer? Sadly no! But I have a feeling it begins at home with parenting in 80% of the cases...... we can’t teach kids we are OWED anything, and we can do what we want with only a "time out" for punishment......kids have to know there are rules and consequences in society...... for EVERYTHING....not just "hard core" crimes......... We see them younger and younger every year…… the median prison population is working its way to an early/mid twenty age range…….
    My dad is serving time there for a non-violent crime. Ever heard of not judging a book by it's cover?
    • Avisjay
    • Sep 3rd 2010 (edited Sep 4th 2010)
    Though it has been expressed that these people are criminals and have earned their place in prison, there is definitely more involved if one chooses to look closer. True most of these inmates have commented these crimes, the question may be how did we get here? The Greatest Country in the World, the Most Powerful Country in the World, the Country that provides the most opportunities, YET the highest incarcerating Country on the Planet! There's more of a issues concerning the philosophy of American life as it relates to one stature intellectually and financially, the information available revealing a variety of "attainable" life choices, and as it relates to our notorious caste system. Why do we have more poor people in jail than Haiti, a country where it's entire population is pretty much considered poor? You name the third world country and we have them beat as far as prison population. So, the question is, what happens to a new born child through his/her life experience that destines them for Prison in such a Country as the USA, that for all intends and purposes should be the "Land of Oz" in comparison to much of the rest of the World?

    And if we conclude that it's our "no nonsense" policy that got us here, then why don't other highly technological and progressive countries (those in Europe and the likes of Japan and even China with their billion+ population) have the same incarcerating statistics? So, using the process of deduction there is something functionally/physiologically different in growing up in the US than in other countries.
    Whereas I agree with comments already made regarding justified incarceration for specific crimes, the bigger message is why are there so many people put in prison in the United States? Research has shown a considerable profit motive behind this and the country is, indeed, very much run in a for-profit way. I could never condone the actions of a person who makes a conscious decision to break a law, but I do question the motivations of the justice system around the revenue-generating benefits of sending a person to jail.

    Private prisons, in particular, are highly questionable in their business activities. The biggest private prison organizations boast of the profits they make for their shareholders. Hang on. Those prisons are paid by the Bureau of Prisons or state-specific Departments of Corrections, all of which are funded by the tax-payer. Surely profits should come back to the tax-payer. Does that ever happen? Of course not. That, in itself, seems like fraud to me. But will the executives of those companies ever see time on their own facilities? Highly unlikely.

    In the meantime, it would appear that the justice system (term used loosely) is all for incentivizing those who can directly influence the liberty of an individual, to incarcerate as many as possible. That is one sick society.
    I have to agree with Michael Fox - obviously society cannot function without illegal or immoral acts having consequences, but quite frankly the extent these supermax prisons punish their inmates is inhumane and disgusting. Not only that, but the american justice system seems to have no consideration for any mental illnesses the convicted may suffer from, no consideration for the fact that some of their prisoners are barely adults and no consideration that many of the prisoners never even had enough evidence in their case to fully convict them of the crime they supposedly did - and why should they give a damn when inmates provide them with cheap labour and a way to make huge profits? From what i can see, American prisons are used to exploit the weak and vulnerable for the personal gain of the prison authorities.
    All five of the high profile prisoners here, had political motivation in their crime.. they either fundamentally disagreed with the American foreign policy, or with Theodore Kaczynski, in the environmental destruction.

    It is a mark of any society to treat all people, regardless of their point of view with humanity. In doing that, you can begin to hope that it will be reflected in how a society is viewed internally and externally, as humane and just and is less likely to motivate extreme violence.

    The five men profiled clearly did not see a way that they could effect the change they wished for, or too even be heard, without using violence. There is no perfect world and locking away people who make that more uncomfortable, and not looking at the cause, is as lacking in vision as the act of violence itself.
    Just so everyone knows I have been in a supermax and never bombed a building. The same segregation and restrictions placed on people like the Unabomber and others of notorious statute is the same segregation and restrictions placed on someone who might have bumped into a guard and didnt say "excuse me". Speaking from experience I can tell you that people (because I refuse to label them as "Inmate" or "Prisoner" - they are people) who are in segregation are not segregated. They are in a place where they can hear the voices, screams, and banging of other people. They drive each other mad in there. The only thing you can do to keep from going insain is to occupy your mind. Not a lot of people are educated enough to read and simply give up and focus on other things, like yelling and banging on doors. Getting cell extracted because there was nothing else to do. I still struggle with some of the issues I developed while in segregation and I was only there for 27 months. I know men that have been in segregation for 8, 10, and 15 years. One of my close friends Terrance Akers "Smiley" died in segregation because they would not treat him for Hepatitus C. The staff take out personal hostilities towards the people there because they had a bad night or whatever. I've seen staff purposefully harass another human being just to see if they could get him to be cell extracted. That is their way of being able to assault someone and get away with it. They had this man hog tied with cuffs, then as they carried him down the metal grated stairs "accidentally" dropped him. One of the guards said "oops" and giggled. These places do not just play havoc on the people in the cells but they also play havoc on the minds of the staff. But the staff get all the counseling and treatment they need to deal with that. What does the person in the cell get? Nothing. Accept perhaps they might get out and play havoc with society once more. Segregation is a hoax to give society the impression that they are safe. It is an illusion to assume that because most of the - as Society likes to say - "Criminals" will be getting out. Do you want to meet them in a dark ally? Society needs to make a stand against segregation as an asnwer for everything. I agree that some people need to be segragated due to the nature of their crimes such as death row, or because they need protection, but as an answer to facility need...ABSOLUTELY NOT!
    Dear "Shackizlla",

    Thank you a million for your testitimony.
    This is rare and very important, really.

    Thank you.
    I think that this discussion and the differing opinions so far provides a very illuminating overview of the problems that face us when we try to create a uniform approach to the idea of "crime" and the ways in which punishment should and can be applied. Obviously in America, punishment is now overwhelmingly predicated towards incarceration, not least because it provides a clean, simple, and some would say inhumane way of removing the 'problem' from view - i.e. the law breaking person. As anyone who is not an American knows, what begins in America unfortunately is often spread through various means to other countries, under the name of development or diplomacy. In Australia a new 'super-max' facility was opened in NSW in 2001, after the closure of a previous prison that used sensory deprivation techniques in the 70's. In Turkey, the establishment has introduced mandatory sentences for drug crimes that have led to prisons overflowing with new people. This is not only an American problem, but a social problem that pervades our contemporary mentality. I too have been in prison, and In reality, the experience of sensory deprivation even at a minor level, is cruel. What strikes me as being at the heart of this discussion though, and it's what comes through in Shackzilla's testimony, is the overwhelming and fearsome power of the State. These super-max prisons are justified on the basis that these prisoners are dangerous and must be isolated to prevent them harming society further. But this dynamic of the awe-inspiring power to evil in the criminal mind is an illusion. These people and their powers are insignificant compared to the retributive force of the State. How ludicrous to suggest that they are a danger to the outside world. Every year the governments of Nation States around the world approve new military technologies designed for the maiming and killing of people. Every year they approve developments that threaten the environmental balance of this planet. Even now they play games of financial brinkmanship in America over ideological quibbles, while real Americans stand to lose their homes, jobs and dreams. So - Who is the real threat?
    I have very little sympathy, if any at all for the likes of the characters displayed at the top of this page. Those men certainly earned a cold isolated cell. However, would you believe that there are men that have committed not one single violent crime that are sitting in cold cells right next to these men? How can anyone justify that? My hope is for people to realize that nothing is as black and white as it seems when people generalize the whole based only on the few. As a "civilized nation" we need to take a civilized approach to corrections and decide what is more valuable to us. Do we want to encourage recidivism for the sake of the jobs in rural America or would we rather encourage productivity and rehabilitation so that men and women confined under such conditions for lesser acts won't become what their neighbor in isolation once was? Have any of you looked at the recent hunger strike at Pelican Bay and other segregation prisons in California? Many of those men were placed in the same conditions as Theodore Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Terry Nichols simply because staff found arbitrary evidence (such as an inmate wanting out of segregation so he gives up a name to staff) that they are gang members! Should they have to be indefinitely segregated because of someone who has been bribed by staff with freedom? Society may not care because a majority of society believes that this is not their problem, but the fact of the matter is that it may soon be if society does not open their eyes to this. Wake up America!
    Sorry, but United States Of America is anything but a civilized nation.
    23 hours in a cell sounds like a pretty good definition of torture!
    The society punishes itself by allowing or supporting the same treatment of inmates with such a different crimes.
    We imprison a guy who committed a crime. Fine with me.
    Yet, who do we set free after endless years of unbalanced mental and physical pressure?
    It is sickening that we are treating human beings so in-humane! Yes, they have committed awful crimes and deserve to be held accountable and punishished; but what rights do we have to punish another human being with crimes of abuse-sexually, physically, mentally, medically and so forth? That makes not a one of us any better than the criminal themselves! We the taxpayers for paying the guards to administer the abuse and not standing up and saying that enough is enough. We stand up to other countries and tell them that they are committing crimes against humans for the way they treat their prisoners but do nothing better to ours behind closed doors. I am very pro law enforcement and accountability for crimes, but I am not for being a participant at any level what so ever of abuse of any type to another human being, criminal or not.

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