Inside Florence Supermax: Priorities And Contaminated Air

In some units the duress system is broken, meaning that inmates who push the button in their cells to report an emergency are not able to communicate with correctional officers (COs). A security measure around the perimeter of the prison has not worked for nearly 9 months, and there are problems with the phone logging equipment used to monitor inmate phone calls. On top of that, COs are becoming ill due to a sewage spill contaminating ventilation systems, a  problem that has been ongoing for approximately 5 years.

Such details are a reality according to COs and union officials working at the federal United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, one of the country’s most notorious prisons. 

Meanwhile, employees also allege that the facility’s warden has spent thousands of dollars of taxpayer money updating conference rooms and a command center with amenities like custom-made furniture and plasma television sets. A question of priorities? The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) isn’t saying. It’s no secret COs and officials with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) have cited low staffing levels as a consistent problem at ADX, but there are also issues with maintaining important equipment and how facility funds are utilized.

One big problem, workers say, is a lingering sewage spill underneath facility units that contaminates the air breathed by correctional workers.

“This goes about four years, five years now,” says CO and union official Allen Rexford, who has worked at ADX for 8 and a half years. “There was a big sewage spill underneath our food service area…fecal matters, all kinds of stuff in there.”

Rexford works at the facility as a technician, and says that the BOP hired a private company to come to the spill and assess the situation. But when the contractor recommended environmental remediation, Rexford says the BOP claimed that it didn’t have the funds to clean the environment, and that maintenance workers only received full-face respirators after union arbitration and persuasive words from the  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

A veteran correctional worker at ADX who wished to remain anonymous also claims that the spill continues to be a problem years later.

“There’s quite a few areas that are contaminated below the facility. They don’t wanna fix it flat out,” says the worker. “It gets in through the ventilation system. They’ve had guys sitting inside the control centers getting sick because of breathing that stuff in. Every so often we’re supposed to go down there and make sure there aren’t any holes in the ceiling…we’ve been banned from going down there to do checks.”

Along with the contaminated air, the CO also alleges that basic machines in the facility aren’t working properly. While the worker didn’t want to go into details about the prison’s security measures, he does mention a device that is meant to secure the facility’s parameter.

“For six months now that thing has not worked,” says the CO. “That password to activate it has not worked. The computer that is supposed to be monitoring that has been unplugged for six months, now going on to nine months.”

Then there’s the system that is used to monitor inmate phone calls.

“Phone logging systems, they’re not fixing them. They haven’t been working for months,” the correctional worker says, claiming that the BOP is more concerned about appearances than safety. “They will wipe their tail to make sure that a floor is waxed and buffed before they’ll fix something.”

There are also allegations regarding Complex Warden Ron Wiley and his decision to remodel facility rooms last year with custom furniture and plasma TVs to the tune of thousands of dollars.

“The warden wanted his conference room updated to be prettier,” says Rexford. “Between [Wiley’s] conference room, the second conference room, and the command center, they’ve probably dropped $30,000 to $40,000.”

At the same time, Rexford says he can’t get the $1400 to fix the prison duress system, which allows inmates to communicate with COs during an emergency.

“My intercoms down in the units where, if a guy hits his duress button you can push the intercom and go ‘what’s your emergency?’ are not working,” says Rexford. “They cost money to fix it which is not in the facility’s budget.”

The BOP did not return a request for comment regarding the allegations.

Also see:
Inside Florence Supermax: Locked Doors, Locked Mouths

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

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