Journalists Get First Tour of Supermax

Denver journalist and CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen was one of a small group of journalists permitted to tour the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado yesterday. It was the first time journalists have been afforded the opportunity.

He didn't get to see the prison's most infamous prisoners like Terry Nichols or Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" but he saw and heard enough to write an interesting article. Some highlights:

We saw cement desks and bed frames and stainless steel toilets and sinks. We saw cages—straight out of the circus—where inmates who are going along with the warden’s “program” are allowed to “recreate” outside for about 10 hours a week. We saw that the windows in the cells are only a few inches wide and all look inward toward the other windows of other cells. No one has a view of the beautiful Rocky Mountains which surround the facility in the southern portion of Colorado.


Warden Riley says he speaks with each of the inmates personally every week.

The high-profile prisoners, he said, are actually among the best behaved in the facility. “It is super quiet” where they are confined, he said, “and they exhibit a lot of discipline and respect for authority.”

The purpose of allowing the journalists to tour the facility was public-relations. The warden wants to boost the image of Supermax and contradict the negative public myths about the place. That's a tall order considering, as Cohen writes:

It may be a high-tech, super-secure prison but it is still a prison, where men will live and die in 68-square-foot cells.

There are more observations and details of Cohen's experience at his Washington Post blog, Bench Conference, including this one:

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.
< Senate Leaders to Oppose Ted Olson as Attorney General | "Epistles To This Generation" >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    I suspect I am probably the only poster ... (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by Meteor Blades on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 09:36:09 PM EST
    ...here who has actually been incarcerated in Colorado. That was in the Industrial School for Boys in Golden for 23 months, starting at age 10. My juvenile record is sealed, but there's no harm in anybody knowing half a century later that I was sentenced to an indefinite term for participating in an armed robbery of a gas station. (The six of us had a knife; the gas station owner had a shotgun.)

    Our "cottages" were brick barracks, nasty places in nearly every way, except we weren't isolated and we had windows that looked out on the Rockies. (Plus we got to go outside.) It was that connection to nature, minimal though it was, that made my time bearable.

    Surely they could have given these supermax prisoners a window out of which to daydream?

    Turning the old Chicago (none / 0) (#12)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 09:54:12 PM EST
    He brings a knife, you bring a gun saying on its head.

    Do the dead victims dream? (none / 0) (#13)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 09:55:21 PM EST
    10 years old. I don't think (none / 0) (#15)
    by oculus on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 10:18:11 PM EST
    California even puts kids that young into indefinite custody situation.  Do you attribute any of your fine ability to think and write to this experience?

    At the time I was incarcerated ... (none / 0) (#20)
    by Meteor Blades on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 02:24:59 AM EST
    ...they were even taking 8-year-olds. A Children in Need of Supervision (CHiNS) law was passed in Colorado in 1965 which improved matters considerably.

    I certainly learned something in reform school; but I don't think it was how to write. One of the favorite activities forced on us was to dump a big box of assorted screws, nails, washers, springs and the like onto a bench. Our job was to sort them all by type and size.

    When you were done, all your work was scooped into the box. And, a couple of days later, you did it again. Preparation for factory work, I suppose, designed when the Industrial School was founded in the 1880s.


    Did Dickens visit on one of his lecture tours? (none / 0) (#25)
    by oculus on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 12:30:07 PM EST
    Meteor wasn't (none / 0) (#35)
    by Pancho on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 10:15:28 PM EST
    a little orphan; he was an armed robber.

    Little Dorrit, little Dorrit. (none / 0) (#36)
    by oculus on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 11:04:43 PM EST
    Heh :) (none / 0) (#16)
    by chemoelectric on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 10:19:20 PM EST
    It's a good thing you all weren't more precocious, because I think it would have looked a lot worse had you brought a bazooka instead of a knife. :)

    Why the tour? (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by tnthorpe on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 10:37:24 PM EST
    A Denver newspaper reports that

    According to documents obtained by Westword, ADX officials have denied every single media request for a face-to-face interview with supermax prisoners from January 2002 through May 2007. It doesn't matter if the request comes from a major news organization or a humble local TV station; it doesn't matter if the prisoner is a high-profile resident or an obscure career criminal. Contrary to bureau policy, prison brass have turned down every journalist, citing boilerplate "security concerns" if no handier excuse is available.

    further on in the same article

    Journalists who simply wanted a tour of the place, free of any contact with prisoners, fared no better. Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, who's been working on a book about the American prison system for several years, sent a plaintive three-page letter to the warden in 2004, offering to let prison officials review "any physical description of the facility and its staff that I write" before publication. No dice.

    "I think ADX Florence may be America's most important prison," Schlosser wrote. "Denying me access to ADX Florence will not prevent me from writing about the facility. It will only make it harder for me to give a fully accurate depiction of the facility's aims and practices."

    Schlosser was seeking what all self-respecting journalists want -- the ability to see the situation for themselves.
    Had the facility been open to reporters as it ought to have been, there would have been no need for tour to dispel "negative public myths." Or did the warden just have CIA black site envy?

    Are we?..... (5.00 / 1) (#31)
    by kdog on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 06:21:20 PM EST
    What's wrong with giving the most heinous criminal a freakin' window?

    I get so confused about what the goal is....is it to prevent a murderer from murdering again, or is it to get personal satisfaction out of punishing a murderer aka revenge?  As for me, I get no joy out of say a Charles Manson being locked in a cage, but accept that the cage is the only way to keep a Charles Manson from murdering.  Seperate a Charles Manson from society, but do so humanely.

    In general, I get the vibe that our society is becoming obsessed with punishment.  

    Must Be (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by squeaky on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 07:53:28 PM EST
    From a collective and personal guilty conscience. Somehow torturing someone is as you say plaiin old revenge.

    Craig is a good example of the GOP hypocrisy He punishes gays for who are out of the closet while he himself enjoys gay sex.


    Yup. (none / 0) (#37)
    by Al on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:41:43 AM EST
    In general, I get the vibe that our society is becoming obsessed with punishment.

    Indeed. Repeat after me: "I am a good person. I am a righteous person. My mama loves me."

    Trust me Narius..... (none / 0) (#39)
    by kdog on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:32:35 PM EST
    I spent one day in a cage...it's unpleasant no matter how big the window is, and whether or not you have access to a TV.  You're not free, and that is the unltimate punishment....It's hard to explain, you have to feel the bars shut on you to understand I guess.

    Heck...if it keeps the prison safer for the guards and the inmates, give 'em cable TV.  Even give 'em filet mignon for dinner...the loss of freedom is still about as unpleasant as it gets.


    Dissociation (none / 0) (#41)
    by squeaky on Sat Sep 15, 2007 at 12:56:45 PM EST
    In general, I get the vibe that our society is becoming obsessed with punishment.  
    At least the right wing is.

    Digby nails it:

    It's become clear in the last few years that right wingers are psychologically unfit to lead the nation. Vast numbers of them are "conservative" not due to philosophy but to cover up for serious personal issues with sexuality, masculinity, oedipal complexes and worse. In fact, it's so pervasive that one must now assume that conservative political leaders are driven by a complicated desire to compensate for psychological problems rather than the usual political mix of ambition, ego and drive to power. There are just too many examples of disturbed, neurotic, secretive GOP hypocrites out there. It's a feature not a bug

    Meanwhile (5.00 / 1) (#40)
    by jondee on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 05:28:00 PM EST
    you can wind up in federal prison for counterfeiting while some campaign contributing sleazeball makes millions importing counterfeit antiquities and toxic toys from China (God shed his slave labor on thee).

    Of course, it's always better to focus on the criminals we're instructed to focus on.

    Ask any correctional officer. This ain't (none / 0) (#1)
    by oculus on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 05:36:27 PM EST
    the Hilton.

    The point is not that it shouldn't be (none / 0) (#2)
    by scribe on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 05:46:00 PM EST
    "The Hilton", but rather that by so degrading these men, we have degraded ourselves.

    Think about it - spending every moment of your day and night in the same area about the size of two sheets of plywood.
    Never seeing anything green.
    Never seeing anything living other than other people who are either inmates like yourself or keeping inmates like yourself locked up.
    Never seeing, let alone touching, any furniture (or anything else) made of wood.
    Never seeing snow.
    Never seeing anything other than prison.
    No tactile sensation other than cement, unmoveable steel, and a blanket.

    That's torture.

    All those politicians and commenters who think this is a great idea, I'd like to send there to live for an indeterminate amount of time - don't tell them how long they'll be there, just that it will be until we decide to let them out.
    I'd hazard that, inside of a month, they'd be
    both ready to go insane and convinced that their great idea wasn't so great after all.

    Question. (none / 0) (#3)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 06:06:27 PM EST
    What would be your suggestions for a facility to house those who are being held for life without parole??

    Clarifying LWOP imprisonment (none / 0) (#9)
    by Peter G on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 09:01:13 PM EST
    Unfortunatley, many federal statutes now make sentences of life without parole (we criminal lawyers say "LWOP") possible.  (I, for one, think a sentence of life without hope is cruel (if not unusual) and unnecessary.  Many people, including people who once did something very, very bad, change to the point where they are no longer dangerous, or were never dangerous and have been punished enough, or new mitigation becomes known, or ....  In short, it is more human and humane to believe in hope and to believe in the possibility of change for the better.
      Be that all as it may, in direct answer to your question, Jim, you are making a double-edged false assumption.  Not everyone at ADMAX is serving LWOP, and by far the majority of LWOP prisoners are not at ADMAX.  They are in ordinary, high security prisons, where they have far more recreation, far more space to move around, and far more human and other contact with the world.  In fact, lifers are often -- in many cases because of their advancing age -- the model prisoners who help keep others calm and orderly.  

    Peter G (none / 0) (#11)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 09:53:57 PM EST
    Actually I was not assuming anything, just asking a simple question.

    I asked it for several reasons.

    First I have slowly been moving from pro death sentence to anti, although I remain conflicted. As such I understand the feelings of those who feel that a death sentence is reasonable in many cases for a variety of reasons.

    Secondly, one of the pro death arguments is that once LWOP us accepted as the norm, the next move will be to claim that as cruel and inhumane punishment and demand that sentences be commuted, reduced, etc., etc.

    You have certainly proved them correct.

    I can only add that while 68 square feet is small and 10 hours per week of "recreation outside" is limited, it is infinitely larger in space and time  when compared to the  size of a casket and the zero recreation of the dead.


    Actually, Jim ... (none / 0) (#21)
    by Peter G on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 10:19:31 AM EST
    if you were responding to the topic of the thread (the regimen of confinement at AdMax-Florence), then your comment did implicate the assumptions I identified.  If you were "just asking a question," but not staying with the thread, then I agree that your remark did not necessarily make those assumptions.  In that event, however, you were changing the subject, or attempting to.  Since that's not to be expected in the comments to a blog post, I was making the assumption that you were playing by the rules of the discussion.  If my assumption about your good behavior was incorrect, I apologize.
       I disagree that the comment disclosing my moral qualms about LWOP sentences "proves [death penalty proponents] to be correct" about anything.  That argument appears to assume (here I go again!) that there are some people convicted of aggravated murders (and that within the limitations of  our present criminal justice system we can identify who those particular murderers are with sufficient reliability) for whom execution would be an appropriate punishment, unless we can impose a sentence of life without parole on those same convicted murderers.  But since I don't share that assumption for reasons too complicated and multifaceted to explicate fully here, I repeat that nothing I said "proves" any pro-death argument.  

    LWOP is indistinguishable from death (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by scribe on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 10:31:10 AM EST
    because if the sentence is carried out, you will die in prison, most likely courtesy of the government.

    LWOP is the removal of all hope from the incarcerated, and denial of even the idea of redemption by the incarcerator.  Denying the latter, redemption, indicates that the incarcerator has decided the prisoner is not human at all.


    Redempton?? (none / 0) (#27)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 01:37:06 PM EST
    How can I deny a person the confession of his sins and the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as his savior?

    I can not. That is within him.

    LWOP parole is a punishment that is mostly a substitute for execution and is supported because it lessens the chance that society might execute an innoicent person.


    Redemption (none / 0) (#28)
    by glanton on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 02:51:04 PM EST

    the confession of his sins and the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as his savior?

    is what he was talking about.


    I understood Scribe (none / 0) (#33)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 08:25:31 PM EST
    You come to me claiming that executions are bad. That innocent people may be executed.

    And I agree and say, LWOP is a viable option.

    Now you, and others, say that LWOP is bad, that people may change and redeem themselves.

    I say that their redemption is NOW between themselves and God.

    So do not speak to me of this. They have already been spared what they did not spare others.


    And if... (none / 0) (#34)
    by roy on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 09:25:30 PM EST
    ... a convict serving LWOP happens to truly reform -- learns right and wrong, finds God, whatever -- is it just that he stays locked up?

    How do we know?? (none / 0) (#43)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Sep 15, 2007 at 07:01:41 PM EST
    A killer who takes the life of someone (none / 0) (#29)
    by Pancho on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 03:06:18 PM EST
    who is begging to be spared is NOT at all human and deserves whatever they get. Someone who shoots a clerk between the eyes because it is more convenient than working a few fast food shifts is NOT at all human. Give me an example of an allegedly mistreated prisoner and I'll tell you about their victim, and the loss of their life, and the devastation of their family.

    Peter G (none / 0) (#26)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 01:19:00 PM EST
    Since no one but me knows what my assumpations were, I fail to see your point. But to clarify, my question was in regards to a category, LWOP prisoners, that are locked away in Florence. Sorry If I did not make that plain, but I thought my identification of the prioners made the point. And I fail to see why discussion of a category of the prisioners is off topic.

    At the risk of being simplistic in what --- remember I said I was conflicted over the subject --- is a complex subject, my point was that those who support the death peanlty make the claim that if LWOP becomes standard, the next complaint will be that the imprisonment is too harsh.

    And yes, your reply does prove their point.

    (I, for one, think a sentence of life without hope is cruel (if not unusual) and unnecessary.  Many people, including people who once did something very, very bad, change to the point where they are no longer dangerous, or were never dangerous and have been punished enough, or new mitigation becomes known, or ....  In short, it is more human and humane to believe in hope and to believe in the possibility of change for the better.

    My most obvious problem with the death penalty is the fear of executing an innocent person. Beyond that I have few qualms beyond worrying that the defense has adequate funds and other resources to mount a first class defense. Plus (somehow) a way to remove the win/lose culture by both sudes. A "win" should be when results match the truth.

    BTW - In case you think I am a die hard lock'em up dude, remember that I have called for rationaliztion of our drug laws, including making most illegal drugs legal, it being obvious that our present system is not working.


    I am assuming the only persons incarcarated (none / 0) (#4)
    by oculus on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 06:18:58 PM EST
    at this facility are serving a federal prison term, i.e., not pre-trial/no trial detainees.  In my opinion, these conditions do not constitute "torture."  That doesn't mean it wouldn't be perfectly acceptable to make the conditions more livable.  

    Alcatraz of the Rockies (none / 0) (#5)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 07:25:40 PM EST
    Yes it's only for convicted offenders but read this.

    Alcatraz is crumbling fast. Better (none / 0) (#6)
    by oculus on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 07:38:50 PM EST
    comparison is probably Pelican Bay.

    The warden has to keep the prisoners from (none / 0) (#42)
    by JSN on Sat Sep 15, 2007 at 03:03:53 PM EST
    a) killing each other
    b) killing the staff
    c) escaping
    d) committing suicide
    e) from going insane

    It appears that the warden has accomplished objectives  a) to c) but is not dong as well on d) and e).

    It appears there was a policy change after Bush became President.  Was the BOP an independent agency that is now under the DOJ or Homeland Security?

    The criminal justice system is far from perfect so my view is we should save the parts in case there was a screw up. I understand that in some cases the chances of a screw up are very small and the some parts are not worth savings but if you give them a chance to screw up they will.

    Suicide is proof by demonstration that some think that death is better than LWOP but most of them don't think so.


    Yes. No window, no view is torture. (none / 0) (#8)
    by lilybart on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 08:27:03 PM EST
    Who are we as a people?  

    I am an agnostic but I wish this really were a Christian country sometimes because there would be a little more humanity here.


    Torture? (none / 0) (#14)
    by Beldar on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 10:16:05 PM EST
    The view to the interior of the prison compares favorably with that from inside any one of the 168 coffins of the victims from Terry Nichols' crime, just for an example. By your definition, my high school algebra class was also "torture." A definition that broad is meaningless.

    What's the point? (none / 0) (#7)
    by Al on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 07:58:08 PM EST
    According to Jeralyn's other post, I work out the construction cost at $11,200 per sq. ft. That's pretty expensive real estate, and that's not counting all the other costs. All this just for the sadistic pleasure of driving someone completely out of their minds.

    "The point" is at least three-fold ... (none / 0) (#18)
    by Beldar on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 11:16:35 PM EST
    1. Segregation/prevention: Many of these prisoners have engaged in crimes of violence, including murder, and/or attempted escape from less secure prisons. Generally speaking, they earned the designation "worst of the worst" by demonstrating that no lesser prison was adequate to keep them from hurting others and/or possibly escaping.
    2. Retribution: Our criminal justice system is still premised on the notion that criminals deserve punishment. Being deprived of their freedom — and, in an extreme facility like this one, of the ready company of other inmates or a pleasant view of the Rocky Mountains — is intended to punish them. It is a societal judgment, from which you're free to dissent of course; you and I are both pleased that you can dissent without incurring punishment, which in many other societies is not the case.
    3. Rehabilitation: Short of killing them, or of inflicting genuine torture or other punishments that would violate the Eighth Amendment, moving prisoners to a facility like this one is one of the few ways of meaningfully increasing their incentives to change their behavior and begin their rehabilitation. As the article stresses, every inmate (with the exception of some very few whose own safety in a less secure prison can't be guaranteed) has the opportunity to demonstrate that he can again be trusted sufficiently to be returned to a regular prison population.

    But these points are not worth very much (none / 0) (#22)
    by Al on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 10:26:14 AM EST
    1. Segregation: You don't need to bury someone in a ventilated grave in order to make sure they don't reincide.

    2. Retribution: These inmates are not merely being deprived of their freedom. They are being deliberately tortured. This is not something that a civilized society does.

    3. Rehabilitation: I doubt this very much, to put it mildly. Show me statistics.

    Prisons tell a story -- of us (none / 0) (#19)
    by janinsanfran on Wed Sep 12, 2007 at 11:20:05 PM EST
    "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

    This is attributed to Dostoyevsky, but may be apocryphal. Still, I think there is something to it. Unfortunately the conditions of many of our prisons, in addition to the Florence facility, cast doubt on the degree of our civilization.

    prisons (none / 0) (#24)
    by diogenes on Thu Sep 13, 2007 at 11:36:30 AM EST
    Unfortunately, LWOP offenders do reoffend-not against outside society but against prison guards.  
    Such prisons do not deny "redemption"; redemption is within the person.