Inside Florence ADX: Locked Doors, Locked Mouths

The job has never been easy, and it won’t be getting any easier.

Right now a general consensus from the workforce of correctional officers (COs) residing in one of the nation’s most notorious prisons is that “we’re basically screwed.” So says a veteran officer working at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado.

On top of low staffing levels that are reportedly turning the facility into a concrete tinderbox, there’s also the issue of the real people who work the prison, and the consistent fear that they won’t come home from an 8-hour shift. But you might not guess this with the image of stability and security portrayed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), an agency that workers say doesn’t take kindly to the idea of COs talking to the media.ADX is a maximum security prison and part of the BOP’s Florence Federal Correctional Complex, which also includes the United States Penitentiary (USP) facility and the medium security Federal Correctional Institution (FCI). ADX is unique in that it is the only complete “supermax” prison in the United States, housing notable names like Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and September 11th conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

“You’re dealing with an depressed environment, a place where it just oozes negativity and you’re just walking into a dungeon everyday,” says former correctional worker Cory Hodge. “People are being kept against their will, people’s attitudes are constantly bad and it has a way of affecting people who work there.”

Hodge started working at the Florence USP in 2000, and in 2003 transferred to ADX after being stabbed six times by an inmate.

“It was me and a female correctional officer, who ran after I was assaulted and pretty much left me for dead,” says Hodge. “I fought as hard as I could and I managed to get out into the inmate common area where a hundred other inmates surrounded me and were encouraging this other inmate to kill me.”

But while Hodge survived and moved on to ADX, he was still plagued by nightmares of a place he couldn’t leave.

“I would go home and just try to get over my day’s work, and then I would close my eyes to go to sleep at night and then I would be right back at work in my dreams,” he says. “I would be dealing with inmates while I was sleeping and then I would get up and go to work and I’d deal with inmates in real life.”

Finally, Hodge quit ADX in 2006, citing low staffing levels, a desire to spend more time with his family, and the fact that “it never got better, it always got worse.”

Another staffer who currently works at the prison  also says not much has changed.

“At the beginning of a quarter you’re assigned to your unit. It’s gotten to the point now that we have to stop in at the Lieutenant’s office to find out where we’re working,” says a veteran CO who has worked at ADX for a number of years and wished to remain anonymous.

The veteran officer says that COs in the facility don’t know where they’ll be working each day because staffing has become so low, and points out that the BOP is to determined avoid the subject.

“If there’s a tour coming through they will make sure every post on day watch is filled, so that nobody know they are short,” says the CO. “We haven’t seen it getting any better. We’ve had new kids that joined, and within 6 months they’re quitting because they’ve been basically run into the ground.”

Union officials with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents the correctional workers at the facility, has continually brought up the issue of staffing, saying that CO numbers are under what that the BOP has declared necessary to operate ADX safely.

“In some cases they doubled the workload, in some cases they quadrupled the workload,” says Barbara Batulis, the AFGE Local 1302 president and a correctional worker of with approximately 7 years at ADX.

Batulis provided documentation from the BOP’s own staff roaster showing that 551 correctional posts had been vacated at ADX from Jul. 29 to Sept. 1st, with 230 total posts at the facility. Posts refer to the actual number of positions in the the prison that are filled by different COs. For some shifts, units in the prison were vacated for at least 16 hours, meaning that COs were not available to provide consistent checks on the inmates in the area.

As of the end of August, there were 473 inmates at the ADX and approximately 300 facility staff with 180 of that number composing working correctional officers, not taking into account vacation or short-term sick leave.

What this means, according to Batulis, is that feedings and recreational times get delayed as COs move throughout the facility to pick up the slack.

“I like my job. I don’t like going in and saying OK, ‘Do I have to do the job of three people today or can I just do my job?'” Batulis says. “When you ask 165 people to do the job of 230 somethings gotta give somewhere.”

The anonymous CO also noted that in some cases inmates aren’t given recreational time because of staffing shortages, and other menial tasks are not completed when they should be.

“If you don’t have those three people in [the unit] working…they can’t do something. They have to wait for somebody to come help them. So something that would normally take you 5 or 6 hours to do you might not get done that day,” says the worker. “There’s no making up on recreation. If you don’t’ get it for that day, that’s it, those hours are gone. So you go to the next day.”

The CO notes that those who didn’t get recreation time for one day are given priority the next day, and that the BOP keeps strict logs on which inmates get outside time.

Such delays in food and recreation have lead to growing tension between COs and inmates, leading towards what workers say are an increased number of assaults.

“There’s two things you don’t mess with in reference to an inmate, and that’s food and recreation,” says the CO. “You’re asking for something to happen. The older staff, we’re tired of this.”

The correctional worker explains that press is ” not allowed to talk to correctional officers” on tours, although the BOP tolerates union officials generally talking to the media. “If you do get to talk to a staff member it’s what we call ‘one of the boys,'” says the CO, referencing workers that are favorable with the complex warden and his point of view. “They won’t sit there and tell you the truth.”

Hodge echoes the information.

“If you talk to the media you will be disciplined and maybe lose your job,” says Hodge. “If they give you a tour they’re going to give a dog and pony show. They don’t want you talking to correctional officers by any means. They’re going to tell you that they have everything under control, and they’re going to spew statistics. It’s all manipulation.”

The silence also appears to apply towards inmates as well. In August it was reported by Westword, a weekly paper in Denver, that the BOP had “denied every single media request for a face-to-face interview with supermax prisoners from January 2002 through May 2007,” giving way to a virtual media blackout at the prison. On Sept. 11, the BOP held its first media tour of ADX since the facility was opened in 1994, which was offered only to a select number of reporters. 

“That were basically screwed.” That is the general feeling of ADX correctional workers according to the CO, in a scenario that workers say includes rising stress levels and a bureaucracy that doesn’t care.

“Either a CO’s going to have to get hurt or an inmate’s going to die before it gets corrected,” the officer says.

But workers and union officials say they want something done before that happens, which means they’re willing to break the silence.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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