‘Finally out and among the living’

Jack Powers is an inmate in the federal Bureau of Prisons convicted of bank robbery and escaping from prison. He spent more than a decade in extreme isolation at the ADX where he amputated his fingers, earlobes, a testicle and his scrotum. He has tried several times to commit suicide. “The world outside is like another planet,” he wrote from ADX. “I feel like I am trapped within a disease.”  — S.G.


After 12 long, hard years at the ADX Control Unit Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado, I’m finally out and among the living. Oh, I’m not on the streets. I’m here among the general population of a federal penitentiary in the dry and dusty desert of Tucson, Arizona.

For a guy who has lived alone in a cement box for more than a decade, the transfer here was really something. First there was a bus and then air-service called “Con-Air” – big passenger jets flown around the U.S. by the Marshals Service. I had the opportunity to speak with other prisoners and see a couple of cities both from land and air. It was a trip for me for sure.

When we pulled up at the pen, I was all prepared to go straight to the segregation where, once again, I’d be put into solitary confinement. Instead, a number of prison officials met me inside the door and told me that I’d be going directly into the population – into the best unit, in fact, where I’d have single cell. I was so shocked by this turn-around that I began to shed tears.

After being alone in a tiny space for so many years, I had adjusted to a kind of self-sufficiency. My eyes had adjusted to seeing things only up close. To be trusted to be around other people without handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains was incredible. I kept waiting for someone to tell me to place my hands behind my back and turn around. But nobody did. Suddenly, I was a regular prisoner in a regular prison. To most people I figure may be reading this, I realize it may not sound like great fortune. But to me, it’s big luck to be back among the living.

Still, now free to walk and talk among other prisoners, I’m starting to notice the effects that solitary confinement had on me. The noise and movement all around me is disconcerting. My conversational skills aren’t that good (as if they ever were) and I’m talking too slowly and pausing too often to gather my thoughts. If someone came up behind me, I’d jerk around to assess whether he meant harm. If somebody clasped my shoulder, I might whirl around and strike him because I’m not used to being touched, especially in a friendly way.

powers.And there’s another thing. Because I have tattoos on my face and head that make me look like an avator/avatar, I get a lot of looks. My appearance makes other prisoners wary of me. They ask where I had come from – what joint. And when I tell them, they shake their heads knowingly. They understand that I’ve been damaged.

The years I spent at ADX have taken their toll in ways I couldn’t have expected.

Like the first night here in Tucson when I tried to play basketball in the rec yard. I could dribble all around. But when I tried to take a shot the ball felt like a brick. Actually, a cinder block. The years I spent playing in my cell with a sock as my ball and a paper rim taped by my wall had destroyed my actual skills.

Same thing when I tried to play the guitar. I amputated my fingers while at ADX. They can no longer work strings to make music. And I have no confidence that I’ll ever play again.

What I can still do is write. And so I put these words onto paper, hoping that the experience of coming out of long-term solitary is something even people who’ve never spent even a day behind bars could find interesting.

Everything seems surreal. It’s like I am dissociated, floating around in a fog, observing this new world from an emotional and psychological distance. In the chow hall, everyone sits in sections according to race and affiliations. It is segregated by the prisoners themselves. But I can go to any table and sit down and no one objects because they understand that I am no one and everyone at the same time. They know by the way I look and by the way I carry myself and by what they have already heard about me. They realize I carry some burden that was born from pain. Some of them offer me extra food, even by silently placing it next to my tray. One man offered two sugar cookies that I concealed in my sock. I got back to the unit unscathed by a shakedown, went into my cell, closed the door and ate them in the dark.

For the most part, the unit I’m housed in is quiet. But whenever the inevitable idiot begins to holler, I get instantly stressed out. After so many years of silence, I long for the quietude. There is something inherently annoying about loud noise that everyone except the noise-maker knows about. As strange as it may sound, I’ve been tempted to pack up my meager belongings and head back to solitary. I feel like mutilating myself again. I feel like committing suicide. But I don’t feel like screaming because that is the worst.

To give credit where credit is due, the lawsuit that was filed by Ed Aro of Arnold & Porter in Denver was the reason for my release from the ADX-Supermax. If not for them and for the Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Padden in Denver and the editor of The Colorado Independent, Susan Greene, I would still be in a deep, dark hole and likely would not be alive right now. I think they know that a lot of bad stuff happened, and I think they are doing their best to fix it.

All in all, I do not know where I’ll go from here. I will continue my mission to promote “The Manual,” a guide to getting by that I wrote at ADX. I’ll try my best to adjust to this new life with the fewest setbacks possible. And, if anyone wants me to, I’ll write about my experiences again for The Independent. Perhaps the writing itself – and the readership – is my catharsis. I want to be accepted. I want to be normal. I want to be the best human being I can be. But it may just be that I’m forever outside and beyond those possibilities. The intent of injury to my heart and mind is unclear as of yet, and right now I’m somewhat confused.

After wearing pants without pockets for a long, long time, even having pockets is weird. I was just now standing by the door with my hands in my pockets and a guard came by and told me to take my hands out of my pockets. I complied, but then involuntarily went back to doing it – as if each hand needs the tight darkness. It makes sense to me. So much sense that I wonder whether I’ll be sent back to solitary for nothing more than sauntering around with my hands in my pockets.

[ Image by Jack Powers ]


  1. I am so saddened by this man’s experience that I am speechless. I would like to write to him because my heart breaks as I read about the horrors he has endured. There is absolutely no excuse for what has happened to this human being. I just can’t say enough….

  2. I agree Jane. I know he has done some bad things in his life, but none of them as bad as what he has endured in prison, especially at ADX.
    I would love to read more from him, very interesting.

  3. Jane and Bobby, I looked up this article after reading another one by Mark Binelli for The New York Times titled “Inside Americas Toughest Prison”.It talks about Jack and others and some of what they went through.Feel free to email me at calvwyne@aol.com

  4. Crazy life crazy story good writing by a man that has been through hell. The man commenting bank robberys without a guy so it obviously wasn’t violent so how could he be punished like this. Sad story

  5. Like Frank said if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. He obviously did something wrong to be put in solitary, they don’t just stick you in there for nothing. Also as a prisoner you lose all rights… Or that’s how it used to be before all these liberals starting taking over office.

    He is a great writer though, sounds pretty intelligent.

  6. This man committed no violent acts, and clearly is a person of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity, yet the federal government insists on endless torture. They torture him because they see bank robbery as an attack on the financial system, an attack on capitalism itself. And in the eyes of those in power, this is worse than any violent crime. Just tragic. I wish him and all other nonviolent offenders serving decades in a cage an early release, as letting this man free would be an act of true justice.

  7. Completely and utterly agree with Adam! Those with criminal records are still humans like you and I, and certain crimes warrant certain punishments, there is such a thing as excessive. Just like you wouldn’t mercilessly beat a kid for stealing a cookie from a cookie jar but perhaps tell them strongly not to do it again, you shouldn’t treat criminals in such an awful, inhuman way. I’ve been looking into ADX and it’s a terrible, terrible place. It is or it did operate illegally in several different ways as well, if you care about laws so much, and solitary confinement is considered a form of torture under international law and violates international standards. Criminals simply need to be shown and helped in the right direction, and that takes effort, which apparently the US doesn’t want to give. Instead, they make criminals worse by putting them in brutal, lawaless conditions, and that’ll most likely make them act out again. Either that, or it drives them utterly mad and destroys them. What they need is help, not to be made worse or destroyed. Everyone is capable of being a better person.

  8. John Doe III you are an idiot. You could not stand an hour in a minimum level 1 prison. This guy, yes, was a criminal. But I would rather have him live next to me when he gets out than anyone like you. Because you are a follower, sheep. They are called sheeple to be precise. Whenever I see somebody, and there are hundreds that say if you can’t do the crime don’t do the time. Does that statement absolve you of caring. Does it make these penitentiaries go away. Because if you had a family member or someone you cared about in one these prisons, I hope you would be, and you would, be the first one on all the ACLU pages, about how your loved one is being beaten and he just wrote some bad checks. Do you know how angry you may be if someone, if just to forget they exist, someone just said something so drone like and without feeling. It is amazing. There is a saying that goes you can tell the heartbeat of a country by the way they treat their own prisoners.

  9. Does anyone know if there is any update on this man, “Jack” Powers? I am searching for any kind of good news/update. Thanks

  10. You can search by name or inmate number on bureau of prisons website and write letters to anyone in prison and find out! 03220-028

  11. I agree with you Jane, I am speechless also at what this man went through. I didn’t know that Bank robbery and escape justified that kind of treatment. It’s also interesting I live Here in Tucson.

  12. Thanks for the Colorado paper the independent And the reporter for bringing us this story. Shocking and heartbreaking, I’m so glad he’s here in Tucson.

  13. Solitary confinement qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. It’s time for that to end.

    A friend spent two years in the minimum-security section of the prison at Florence for a paperwork infringement. Do you know that federal cases are won by the US government fully 98% of the time? They have the attorneys, the time, the money, to beat anyone. Oh, and they appoint the judges, too! The feds offer lighter sentences for plea deals, so you are almost forced to plead guilty, knowing that if you don’t, you’ll be in prison much longer.

    Anyway, my friend is out now and has started his own business–but not in the wonderful United States of America.

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