Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison: the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, a.k.a the ADX, in Florence, Colorado

Mark Binelli, Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison. The New York Times, 26 March 2015. “For years, conditions inside the United States’ only federal supermax facility [the ADX in Florence, Colorado] were largely a mystery. But a landmark lawsuit is finally revealing the harsh world within…. The ADX is the highest-security prison in the country. It was designed to be escape-proof, the Alcatraz of the Rockies, a place to incarcerate the worst, most unredeemable class of criminal — ‘a very small subset of the inmate population who show,’ in the words of Norman Carlson, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ‘absolutely no concern for human life.’… Inmates at the ADX spend approximately 23 hours of each day in solitary confinement.”

 Since opening in 1994, the ADX has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control. Throughout our country’s history, there have been different ideas about what to do with the “worst of the worst” of our criminal offenders, ranging from the 19th-century chain gangs, who toiled in enforced silence, to the physical isolation of Alcatraz Island. The use of solitary confinement in the United States emerged as a substitute to corporal punishments popular at the end of the 18th century. The practice was first promoted in 1787, by a group of reformers called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. At a salon hosted by Benjamin Franklin, a pamphlet was read calling for the construction of a “house of repentance,” in which solitude could work to soothe the minds of criminals — an enlightened alternative, the group believed, to inhumane “public punishments” like “the gallows, the pillory, the stocks, the whipping post, and the wheelbarrow.” Inmates at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829, were completely isolated from one another in cells outfitted with skylights, toilets and access to private outdoor exercise yards, where they worked at various trades, took all meals and read the Bible. Other states tried, but quickly abandoned, the so-called Pennsylvania System, and an 1890 Supreme Court ruling against the use of solitary on Colorado’s death row noted that “a considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semifatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed.”

The concept soon fell out of favor, and beginning in the 1930s, the hardest cases in the federal system — men like Al Capone and George (Machine Gun Kelly) Barnes — were housed in the converted military prison on Alcatraz Island, until it was closed in 1963 because of the costly upkeep inherent to an island prison. By the end of the decade, many of its prisoners had been transferred to the new “control units” at a federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., where they were kept in solitary confinement. In 1983, after the assassination of two guards in separate attacks on the same day, by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Marion penitentiary was converted to the first modern all-lockdown facility, the entire prison now a solitary unit. (One of the guards’ killers, Tommy Silverstein, is now at the ADX. He has been in solitary confinement for the past 22 years.)

Beginning in 1989 with California’s Pelican Bay, states began building their own lockdown penitentiaries, inspired by the Marion model. The renewed use of solitary coincided with the era of mass incarceration and the widespread closing of state-run mental-health facilities. The supermax became the most expedient method of controlling an increasingly overcrowded and psychologically volatile prison population. A result of this unfortunate confluence has been a network of ever more austere and utilitarian penitentiaries, built specifically to seal off a significant portion of state and federal inmates, using methods that would shock many Americans. According to a 2014 Amnesty International report, more than 40 states now operate supermax prisons. On any given day, there are 80,000 U.S. prisoners in solitary confinement….

The ADX can house up to 500 prisoners in its eight units. Inmates spend their days in 12-by-7-foot cells with thick concrete walls and double sets of sliding metal doors (with solid exteriors, so prisoners can’t see one another). A single window, about three feet high but only four inches wide, offers a notched glimpse of sky and little else. Each cell has a sink-toilet combo and an automated shower, and prisoners sleep on concrete slabs topped with thin mattresses. Most cells also have televisions (with built-in radios), and inmates have access to books and periodicals, as well as certain arts-and-craft materials. Prisoners in the general population are allotted a maximum of 10 hours of exercise a week outside their cells, alternating between solo trips to an indoor “gym” (a windowless cell with a single chin-up bar) and group visits to the outdoor rec yard (where each prisoner nonetheless remains confined to an individual cage). All meals come through slots in the interior door, as does any face-to-face human interaction (with a guard or psychiatrist, chaplain or imam). The Amnesty report said that ADX prisoners “routinely go days with only a few words spoken to them.”…

Five years ago, a major lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons would have sounded quixotic. But in the present moment, the ADX case feels like the crest of a wave, as the excessive use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has come under intensifying scrutiny. Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, held the first-ever congressional hearing on the issue in 2012. Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, testified that “a shockingly high percentage” of the prisoners in solitary confinement are mentally ill, “often profoundly so” — approximately one-third of the segregated prisoners on average, though in some units the figure rises to 50 percent….

According to David Cloud, a senior associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the reform of the criminal-justice system, “The research is pretty conclusive: Since people started looking at this, even 200 years ago, when a guy named Francis Gray studied 4,000 people in ‘silent prisons,’ the studies have found that the conditions themselves can cause mental illness, stress, trauma.” The devastating effects of solitary confinement, even on those who showed no previous signs of psychological problems, are now so broadly accepted by mental-health professionals that policy makers are finally taking notice. Last year the New York State attorney general approved a deal forbidding the placement of minors and mentally ill prisoners in solitary; in January, New York City banned solitary for anyone under 21….

[Deborah] Golden [the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project] recognized that a lawsuit against the B.O.P. would still be a long shot — and that a co-counsel with deeper pockets than her own would be necessary. So she approached Arnold & Porter, a white-shoe law firm with a history of taking on high-profile pro bono cases. Ed Aro, a partner based in Denver, was intrigued; a close family member had spent time in prison, and other relatives had suffered from mental illness. Aro himself, though, was a trial lawyer who mostly represented corporations and had never set foot in a correctional facility. The prison jargon so baffled him at first that Golden had to send him a glossary that she put together….

As he tried to get a handle on the lawsuit, he made the two-hour drive to Florence nearly every week. For years, conditions inside the ADX had remained largely a mystery; from 2002 on, the Amnesty report noted, ADX officials denied every media request for a visit or prisoner interview, aside from a restricted tour in 2007. (The B.O.P. declined to comment for this article or to allow a site visit.) Aro assumed he would find a small number of prisoners who had somehow slipped through the cracks. “The thing that shocked me most was how massive the problem was,” Aro said. “The ADX is the most closely monitored and evaluated subset of the prison population in the entire country. With the extent of the problem, it’s incomprehensible to me that the B.O.P. didn’t notice what was going on.” How, Aro wondered, did the toughest prison in the United States become a mental asylum — one incapable of controlling its own population?…

[Ed Aro] enlisted Dr. Doris Gundersen, a Denver-based forensic psychiatrist, who was allowed inside the ADX as part of his legal team. After evaluating 45 prisoners, she estimated that 70 percent met the criteria for at least one serious mental illness. She and Aro spoke to inmates who swallowed razor blades, inmates who were left for days or weeks shackled to their beds (where they were routinely allowed to soil themselves), an inmate who ate his own feces so regularly that staff psychiatrists made a special note only when he did so with unusual “voracity.” A number of prisoners were taken off prescribed medications. (Until recently prison regulations forbade the placement of inmates on psychotropic medication in the Control Unit, the most restrictive section of the ADX, as, by definition, such medication implies severe mental illness.) Others claimed that they were denied treatment, aside from “therapy classes” on the prison television’s educational station and workbooks with titles like “Cage Your Rage,” despite repeated written requests. (The ADX lawsuit says that only two psychologists and one part-time psychiatrist serve the entire prison.)…

According to Golden, prisons have a history of getting lawsuits mooted by simply transferring the litigious inmate to a different facility. In anticipation of such a maneuver, Golden and Aro assembled a broad platform of plaintiffs, unwieldy enough to make the transfer strategy impractical….

[T]o Aro and Golden’s genuine surprise, the government’s lawyers broached the subject of a potential settlement — which, according to Golden, “is almost unheard-of” for the B.O.P. Aro added, “I don’t think any of us went into this very optimistic that we’d get to a resolution without dragging them kicking and screaming across the finish line. The government routinely defends lawsuits if they think they have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.”

[Judge Richard] Matsch assigned a federal magistrate judge to oversee the potential settlement, and Aro and Golden presented the B.O.P. with a list of 27 points that needed to be addressed, including specific demands for diagnosis and treatment and an oversight board to ensure that these demands were met. (The lawsuit does not include any financial settlements.) After nearly a year of negotiations, Golden told me in January, “I think we’re very close to a settlement.” Aro, though also increasingly optimistic, told me this month [March 2015] that he still couldn’t predict whether there would be a settlement or a trial.

Simultaneous to the settlement negotiations, however, the B.O.P. unilaterally began effecting certain (though by no means all) of the requested changes at the ADX. New mental-health programming was added, additional psychologists were hired and a new unit for high-security mentally ill prisoners opened in Atlanta. As predicted, a number of the inmates named in the suit have been transferred out of the ADX — including Powers, who was sent to a high-security prison in Tucson last year.

Powers couldn’t cope with the openness of the new facility. Aro believes the B.O.P. acted with good intentions, but it dismally failed to acclimate a man who spent much of the previous 13 years alone in a cell….

Aro and Golden had both grown close to Powers over the course of the lawsuit. Separately they told me how protective they felt about him and how worried they were about his continued self-destructive behavior. Changes are very likely coming at the ADX, in no small part thanks to Powers’s story. But it seemed entirely possible that he might not survive to see the outcome.