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Isolating the menace in a sterile ‘supermax’

The most secure U.S. federal prison has the polished tile corridors of a modern regional high school and the empty stillness of summer break. The Florence, Colo., facility has among its inmates  Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker; "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid; Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber; and FBI agent turned traitor Robert Hanssen.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The most secure federal prison in America has the polished tile corridors of a modern regional high school and the empty stillness of summer break.

The marquee inmates -- including Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker; "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid; Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber; FBI agent turned traitor Robert Hanssen; and Terry L. Nichols, convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing -- wait out their days in cellblocks the warden leads reporters quickly past on the first media tour since the Florence "supermax" opened 13 years ago.

"You say Moussaoui. You say Kaczynski. That's the smallest part of my population," said Warden Ron Wiley, holding his thumb a quarter-inch from his forefinger. "That is like a premier big man in the NBA. He comes along every 10 years.

"My major mission is inmates who were disrupting the population in other federal prisons."

Yet extremes define the Florence supermax. Conceived after two guards were murdered in a single day at the federal prison in Marion, Ill., the original successor to Alcatraz, the administrative maximum security institution, or ADX, does double duty as a punishment in its own right. Its 475 inmates account for just one-fourth of 1 percent of the 200,000 inmates in the federal prison system, but they are confined to single cells for at least 23 hours a day in sterile isolation and permanent lockdown.

"To paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, you will die with a whimper," U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema told convicted Sept. 11 plotter Moussaoui last year, as she dispatched him directly to this prison in the high desert 45 miles south of Colorado Springs.

"Just like any other place," said Daniel B. Graham, his tattooed arms crossed over his chest, as he stood in a wire exercise cage known as a dog run. He had arrived chained, shackled and escorted by two guards who took him out of his cell only after every other inmate was locked in.

The rules are even stricter in the 78-cell "control unit," where Graham, convicted on a firearms charge, said he twice has been sent. The unit houses the inmates who are barred from any contact with the outside world.

"If you thought the other units were quiet, that unit is super quiet. Super quiet," Wiley said.

Some prisoners do pipe up when the warden makes his weekly rounds, riot baton in hand: " 'Warden, I sent out a letter, and it's been six months and they haven't received it.' Or 'Warden, when I got my newspaper, this article was cut out of it,' " Wiley said.

Censors delay letters to inmates
The letters are delayed by censors, a security measure the ADX stepped up after it was revealed that three of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers had been writing to fellow terrorists abroad. The lapse ran against the mythology that Wiley said the media tour was arranged to undercut: " 'It's a dark, dirty dungeon. It's all underground. They rot in their cells.' "

In fact, the entire prison is aboveground, except for a subterranean corridor that links cellblocks to the lobby, an airy space with a trophy case, souvenirs for sale by the employees association (an "Alcatraz of the Rockies" watch cap is $8) and corporate teamwork posters. One near the conference room reads: "Sharpen the Saw."

But down a flight of stairs, the feeling of being hermetically sealed sets in. Fastened to the wall of the first "sally port," the space between a green steel gate that must slide shut before the gate in front opens, are two items: a fingerprint scanner and a digital clock that reports the weather outside the windowless maze that lies ahead.

"I still get lost," said Michael K. Nalley, Bureau of Prisons regional director.

Down the long tunnel and to the left, the first door is marked "Visiting Room." Past that and another sally port lies G-Unit, visible from the hallway through a small vertical window in a steel door.

G-Unit is one of four "general population" units. Each has 64 inmates. These include Rodney Curtis Hamrick, who peered through the window of the steel door of a solitary exercise pen. He wore prison-issue horn-rimmed glasses and a bushy brown beard.

"Oh, you know me," he said.

In 2005, while incarcerated at Leavenworth in Kansas, Hamrick managed to mail a letter bomb to the federal appeals court in Richmond. For this he landed in ADX Florence, in a cell 12 feet by 7 feet 4 inches, slightly larger than the Montana cabin where Kaczynski hid out.

Each contains a bunk, desk, stool and shelf, all concrete. The stainless-steel sink and toilet evoke an airliner bathroom. The black-and-white television set has a clear plastic housing to leave its electronics visible. All inmates get closed-circuit programming on education and mental health; most also see cable news and entertainment channels.

Through the food port of the steel doors, a low murmur is audible in the hallway between cells. In one, a heavy white man with a shaved head exercised by stepping onto his bed, then stepping off. In the next, a middle-age black man looked up from a book and said: "Me, personally, I like the solitude. I'm at peace with myself."

Dangers of psychosis
Not everyone is. Critics argue that, with their enforced isolation, supermax prisons, "like the sensory deprivation environments that were studied in the '60s, tend to induce psychosis," said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., who has examined scores of prisoners in state supermaxes.

Those inmates "are, on average, the most severely psychotic people I have seen in my entire 25 years of psychiatric practice," Kupers once testified.

At Florence, 65 inmates take medication to control mental illness, said Paul Zohn, one of two resident psychologists. The medicine is prescribed by a Bureau of Prisons psychiatrist in Springfield, Mo., who examines the inmates by video link.

Personal assessments are conducted at the cell door by Zohn and fellow psychologist Marie Bailey. One of the counselors holds a riot baton. Zohn says if everyone speaks softly, the inmate may not be overheard by his neighbors.

"Is 'claustrophobic' a psychological term?" Wiley asked, cutting short the interview after two or three minutes. "Well, I'm getting claustrophobic. Let's move along."

Medical care is also problematic. Only two of five physician slots are filled at Florence, to serve an inmate population that, with the three other prisons in the Florence complex, totals 3,200 inmates.

There is a law library and a lending library: "What we find is that most of them read Westerns and romances," the librarian said.

Zohn says many inmates practice yoga. "They love it," he said.

The board games, including "Fact or Crap," are checked out by inmates who are "earning" their way out of the ADX through docile behavior. Those on the cusp of transition to the nearby maximum-security prison live in K-Unit. It includes an exercise yard with basketball hoops, a sweat lodge and steel cables overhead to deter escape by helicopter.

Inside, Rudolfo Rivera Rios loitered with fellow inmates at tables anchored to the floor between two stories of cells in what looked like a traditional prison.

"I hijacked a plane," said Rios, a native of Puerto Rico who diverted a Pan American flight to Havana in 1970. Now 64, he said he had "had trouble" in other prisons, including a bad fight in a Beaumont, Tex., facility. But the supermax, he said, was under control.

"It's locked down, eh? No problem."