Alcatraz of the Rockies

The Feds have big plans for Supermax, the maximum security prison at Florence, Colorado. It wants to expand the institution and make it the nation's prison of choice for terrorists.

The U.S. Penitentiary-Administrative Maximum Facility, better known as "Supermax" and "Alcatraz of the Rockies," opened in Florence in 1994 as a place to put problem prisoners.

It has become the government's preferred facility for high-profile inmates, such as convicted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.

....Testifying in May before the House subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin requested $23 million to build up to "24 new super-secure cells for convicted terrorists." If the money is approved, the cells will be built at Supermax.

How are these cells different from all other cells?

Solitary cells measure 7 feet, 1 inch by 12 feet, 1 inch, but at least half the floor space is filled with fixtures. Other cells are 10 feet by 12 feet. About a third of the cells are for solitary confinement. Cell amenities currently include a concrete bed, an 18-inch-high, fixed-in-place concrete stool, a fixed writing shelf, knobless stainless-steel shower and a stainless-steel unit containing a seatless toilet and knobless wash basin.

Supermax prisoners live in virtual isolation and are rarely allowed out of their cells. Cameras and microphones record nearly everything they do. In the case of terrorist inmates, who often are imprisoned under special national security provisions, that can include conversations with lawyers.

The feds are being pretty tight-lipped about the plans for Supermax, but there are indicators of what's to come:

The government's emerging strategy in Florence is consistent with a European model for housing terrorist inmates, said Michael Page, a London political scientist who wrote a book on the subject in 1997. In Spain, for example, authorities for years have imprisoned violent Basque separatists on the Spanish-owned Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco, Page said. "You isolate them," he said. "It's much more difficult for them to try and escape."

In Colorado, Supermax offers similar isolation for convicted terrorists, he said. He also described terrorist inmates as being different from others, and said terrorists see themselves as different, too.

"If you've got a political motivation, you tend to be quite a different prisoner from a normal, criminal prisoner," he said. "They tend to view themselves as superior to the criminal prisoner. They don't believe they are criminals. Terrorist inmates usually abstain from participating in prisons' black market economies for drugs, sex and protection, he said.

Supermax is the most secure prison in the country. "It was designed to minimize human contact and escape attempts." The terrorist inmates are said to be well-behaved, according to a prison worker.

"They are respectful toward staff," the worker said. "They don't show hostilities toward workers at the institution." When they speak to each other, however, the terrorist inmates speak in Arabic, which most correctional workers do not understand, he said.

Who else does their time at Supermax?

It is the national rogue's gallery of high-profile and hard-to-manage criminals. Kaczynski still is in prison there, as is Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent convicted of spying for Russia. Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber, was there until his execution in 2001. Terry Nichols, his accomplice, is still a Supermax inmate. Among the more recent arrivals are federally protected mob witness and Arizona Ecstasy dealer Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and Richard Reid, the convicted would-be al-Qaeda "shoe bomber."

What's it like to do time at Supermax?

Varying levels of freedom are allowed at the prison, according to officials and attorneys. The most severe restrictions allow for only an hour outside each day. Many inmates spend as much as four to five hours outside their cells a day...But some convicted terrorist inmates have stopped going outside because of the required searches they must endure, said Kleinman, the attorney.

"I've been doing this 30-odd years," said Frederick Cohn, a lawyer who represents Mohamed Rashid Daoud al-Owhali, who also was convicted of crimes related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. "They're the most restrictive conditions I've ever seen."

Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs, allow the government to closely monitor and even curtail outright the speech of inmates, if it is deemed sensitive to national security. They also prohibit attorneys from repeating things their clients have told them. SAMs frequently allow prison officials to listen in on prisoners' legal conversations, and to screen their legal mail - two types of inmate communication usually off-limits to prison officials.

The feds say that keeping terrorists in isolated facilities such as terrorist prisons will break them away from their organizations and increase the likelihood of cooperation. So they use it as a bargaining chip.

"It's certainly led to quite a lot of prisoners choosing to renounce their links with (Basque separatist groups in Spain) in exchange for getting close to home," he said. That is starting to happen in the United States...Defendants in terrorism cases are negotiating their way into other prisons before cooperating with investigators, [terrorist lawyer] Schmidt said. "That's a new part of the negotiations," Schmidt said. "All of the lawyers understand. They know the conditions that my client and others are in right now. "They are aware that if they don't work out a deal with the government, that is where they are going to end up."

An example close to home is James Ujaama:

James Ujaama, a Denver-born man accused last year of trying to develop an al-Qaeda camp in Oregon, signed a plea bargain with federal prosecutors in April. Ujaama has secured a promise that he can serve his sentence in Washington, near his family, said his lawyer in Seattle, Robert Mahler. That is an example of Supermax's power as a "bargaining chip," Schmidt said.

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    Meteor Blades (none / 0) (#1)
    by Meteor Blades on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 07:53:11 PM EST
    I'm possibly the only person on this blog who has actually done time in Colorado. It was 23 months in the Industrial School for Boys in Golden, a "reform school." My juvenile record is sealed, but I went in at age 10 for participating in an attempted armed robbery of a gas station with five other boys, all of them older than I.

    The one thing we had in our "cottages" were windows through which we could see the Rockies. Of course, we were also allowed time outside. Being connected even a little bit to nature made a huge difference.

    Couldn't they have provided ANY windows that allowed daydreaming at Florence?