Federal supermax in Colo condemned as torturous

The federal supermax in Colorado, once described by its former warden as “a cleaner version of hell,” is, in effect, a torture chamber, according to a report today by Amnesty International.

“The US government’s callous and dehumanising practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement in the country’s only federal super-maximum security prison amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is in violation of international law,” the human rights group said in a press release.

The report on the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, otherwise known as ADX, in Florence, Colo., is entitled “Entombed: Isolation in the Federal Prison System.” It details conditions of extreme deprivation of human contact and nearly all sensory stimuli for the prison’s 490 male prisoners who serve on average 8.2 years in solitary confinement, spending 23 hours a day alone in cells about the size of of a Chevy Suburban and the 24th alone in an exercise cage.

“Furniture in the cells is made of poured concrete and consists of a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet. Meals and showers are taken inside the cells and medical consultations, including mental health checks, are often conducted remotely through teleconferencing,” the report describes.

The supermax, run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, is considered the most secure prison on the planet. It houses inmates considered by the Justice Department to be the “worst of the worst.” Some are convicted terrorists, murderers and drug cartel leaders. Others have no history of violence but are housed there because their mental illnesses — which in some cases pre-date their incarceration and in some cases developed in solitary confinement — make them difficult to house in general population prisons.

ADX has no transparency and virtually no public accountability. The news media is not allowed into the facility nor to communicate with inmates by phone. Mail to and from the prison is heavily is censored or commonly disappears altogether. Officials at ADX generally don’t return phone calls, as was the case today seeking inquiry about the scathing international report.

The feds have refused an inspection of the facility by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture who has said any stint in solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days amounts to torture. In a letter to Mendez, the feds said the fact that ADX’s cells have windows with natural light, inmates have TVs and daily contact with staff (albeit through a slot in the door or while being shackled and escorted to an exercise cage) are all proof that the facility is humane.

Known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, ADX is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit on behalf of seriously mentally ill inmates at the prison. The case, Cunningham vs. Bureau of Prisons, alleges that those men have not been adequately screened, treated or monitored. As reported by The Colorado Independent, mentally ill prisoners have mutilated themselves, attempted suicide and killed themselves.

The Independent has featured the writings of former longtime ADX inmate Jack Powers who spent 12 years in extreme isolation, also known as “the hole.” During that time, he tried to kill himself several times and amputated his fingers, earlobes, his testicle and scrotum. “I feel like I am trapped within a disease,” he once wrote.

The Independent also reported the suicide of Robert Knott, whose body was hogtied for hours after his suicide even after Fremont County Coroner Carlette Brocious made the pronouncement that he was dead. Brocious was furious when, even when she asked that shackles be removed, ADX guards insisted on clamping down on the dead man again.

“Dead is dead. He wasn’t going anywhere. He posed no threat,” Brocious said. “What part of that, I mean really, what part of it don’t they understand?”

[Art by Tommy Silverstein, who has spent 30 years in isolation in various prisons, including ADX.]


  1. How about if they let these curious reporters in to spend a day (or even an hour) with some of these inmates in their cells?? Then they will see….

  2. Solitary confinement isn’t for people like Robert Knott and John Jay Powers (Jack Powers). They didn’t kill anyone. In fact BOP manipulated Jack Powers. BOP failed to protect him when he testified against gang members that killed his prison roommate. ADX is not for mentally ill people.

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