'The Alcatraz of the Rockies': Why No One Ever Escapes From ADX Florence

By: Dave Roos  | 

ADX Florence
A view of the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as the ADX or "Supermax," in Florence, Colorado. It's dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" because of its remote location and harsh security measures. JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images

Just two hours outside of Denver, in the parched Rocky Mountain foothills, sits the highest-security prison in America. Its official name is the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, but everyone calls it the ADX. The ADX in Florence, Colorado, is the one and only federal "Supermax" prison, home to the most dangerous and escape-prone inmates in federal lockup.

Among nearly 400 male inmates at ADX are several infamous characters. Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the notorious drug kingpin, was sent to ADX after escaping twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico. The "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, is in there. So is Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber; the 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist Ramzi Yousef; and Michael Swango, a doctor who poisoned and killed up to 60 of his patients.

Prisoners don't end up in the ADX by accident. Many have committed murder — either on the outside or in other prisons, including killing guards. Others are hardcore gang members who have ordered or carried out prison hits. And a significant portion of the men housed at ADX — as many as a third by one estimate — have a diagnosed mental illness that makes them a serious threat to themselves and others.

But critics of the ADX and other Supermax prisons argue that regardless of these men's crimes or mental illnesses, the conditions inside these hyper-secure facilities — in which prisoners spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement — are the very definition of "cruel and unusual" punishment. According to the United Nations, they even qualify as torture.

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Life Inside ADX Florence

At other prisons, inmates are placed in solitary confinement for short stints in response to violent or aggressive behavior. Corrections officials call this type of punitive solitary confinement "administrative segregation," better known as "the hole." At ADX, also known as "the Alcatraz of the Rockies," the entire prison is essentially "the hole."

ADX inmates are confined to their 7-by-12-foot (2-by-4-meter) cells 23 hours a day, according to The New York Times. They receive all their meals through a slot in the cell door, and their only glimpse of the outside world is through a thin slit of a window aimed at an empty sky. This deprives prisoners of learning the layout of the prison and the location of their cells. No one has ever escaped from ADX Florence.

inside ADX cell
A look at one of the cell interiors at the ADX (administrative maximum) Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado, before the facility opened in 1994.
Lizzie Himmel/Sygma via Getty Images

Since ADX inmates can't be trusted with anything that could be broken down and made into a weapon, all the cell furniture is solid concrete and immovable: a concrete writing desk, concrete chair and a concrete slab topped with a thin foam pad that serves as a bed. The "bathroom" is a combination toilet/sink and a shower that turns on automatically three times a week.

With good behavior, inmates earn the right to buy a small, black-and-white TV with a built-in radio, and to borrow books and magazines from the prison library. Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes a month to close family members. Prisoners are allowed five visits each month, under strict circumstances.

The only time that inmates are allowed out of their cells is for an hour of exercise. Handcuffed and shackled at their feet, inmates are either led to an empty room with a single pull-up bar, or taken outside to the yard, where they are locked alone inside a caged pen.

Robert Hood, a former warden at the ADX told The New York Times that the ADX was "not designed for humanity. When it's 23 hours a day in a room with a slit of a window where you can't even see the Rocky Mountains — let's be candid here. It's not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story."

In another interview with The Boston Globe, Hood described the eerie quiet of walking through a modern prison facility where all of the inmates are locked down. "The ADX is a far more stark environment than any other prison I've ever seen, and I've been to all of the federal prisons," said Hood. "[I] call it a clean version of hell."

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Why Supermax Prisons Exist

There are roughly 2 million people in prison or jail in the United States at any given time.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, a small segment of that population poses significant challenges to wardens, guards and other corrections workers. The difficulty of controlling those individuals, described as "the most dangerous, recalcitrant, aggressive, and antagonistic inmates in a prison system," drove the design and construction of increasingly secure facilities.

The first "Super Maximum-Security" prisons were built in the 1980s, and there are now more than 30 so-called Supermax prisons in the United States. ADX, the only Supermax for federal prisoners, was built in 1994.

Keramet Reiter teaches criminology and law at the University of California Irvine and wrote a book about a Supermax prison in California called "23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement."

"The explicit rationale [for Supermax prisons] is that there are people who are so dangerous they have to be removed from the general prison population, and by removing them, everybody else would be better off," says Reiter. "Theoretically there would be less violence and you could deter gang behavior by locking people away in these really harsh and restrictive conditions."

Ted Kaczynski, ADX Florence
American domestic terrorist "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski gestures during an interview with a journalist in a visiting room at the ADX Florence, Aug. 30, 1999. Kaczynski is just one of the many notorious criminals doing time at ADX.
Stephen J. Dubner/Getty Images

But Reiter says that there's little evidence to support the rationale that near-total solitary confinement is an effective way to address prison violence. On the flip side, there's mounting evidence that long-term solitary confinement is akin to psychological torture and increases the risks of certain types of violence, particularly self-harm and suicide.

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What Solitary Confinement Does to the Body and Mind

Reiter says that doctors have known since the 1960s and 1970s that solitary confinement and sensory deprivation have immediate and lasting effects on the brains and bodies of prisoners, as evidenced by the experiences of American POWs in Vietnam.

"We know that locking someone up in solitary confinement can cause all kinds of psychological problems within days, if not hours," says Reiter. "With Supermax prisons, we've essentially been running a mass experiment on the effects of long-term solitary confinement for the last two decades."

For ADX prisoners, their only regular contact with other human beings are the brief interactions with guards who bring them meals and escort them to the yard. A 2014 report by Amnesty International found that ADX prisoners "routinely go days with only a few words spoken to them."

The effects of long-term solitary confinement range from depression and anxiety to full-on hallucinations and psychotic breaks. The New York Times tells the disturbing story of an ADX inmate named Jack Powers, jailed for robbery and sent to ADX after escaping from another prison. The isolation sent Powers spiraling into insanity. He cut off his earlobes, chewed through a finger and smashed his head open in order to inject his brain with "bacteria-laden fluid."

"It's just the harshest place you've ever seen. Nothing living, not so much as a blade of grass anywhere," said Travis Dusenbury in an interview with the Marshall Project. He spent 10 years at ADX for assaulting a guard at another prison, before being released. "It's so claustrophobic in there ... It got to the point where absolutely anything that changed, like if I saw snow falling outside, was what allowed me to survive."

ADX has six different levels of security, and inmates can move from restrictive to less restrictive housing and possibly to other prisons. But even when released from solitary, the effects of isolation linger. In 1993, a doctor named Stuart Grassian described a condition called "SHU syndrome" (solitary confinement facilities are also called Security Housing Units) that's characterized by paranoia, panic attacks, aggression and psychotic symptoms.

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Are Supermax Prisons Unconstitutional?

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment," and given the known psychological effects of solitary confinement, shouldn't prisons like ADX be outlawed?

"Legally the conditions inside Supermax prisons are constitutional," says Reiter. "They have been challenged extensively and no court has held that keeping someone in solitary confinement for any specific period with any specific degree of deprivation is unconstitutional."

There is increasing pressure, however, from the international legal community to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement in America. The United Nations, for example, has established the "Mandela Rules" governing the treatment of prisoners, which prohibits the use of "prolonged solitary confinement" (defined as 22 hours or more per day) and equates it with "torture."

There have been some small victories for prisoner rights at ADX. In 2016, the Bureau of Prisons settled a class-action lawsuit with 100 mentally ill ADX inmates who were denied antipsychotic medications and left to languish in awful conditions. The settlement led to the transfer of some of the most disturbed inmates to special federal facilities where they can receive better psychiatric care.

For the rest of the ADX inmates deemed mentally fit, they are still in their cells serving life sentences in near-absolute isolation.

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