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Isolating the Menace In a Sterile Supermax

Guard towers loom over the ADX, the highest security area at the federal prison in Florence, Colo., where convicted terrorists are held. The vast majority of inmates, however, are those who ran into trouble in other federal prisons
Guard towers loom over the ADX, the highest security area at the federal prison in Florence, Colo., where convicted terrorists are held. The vast majority of inmates, however, are those who ran into trouble in other federal prisons (By Chris Mclean -- Pueblo Chieftain Via Associated Press)

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

FLORENCE, Colo. -- The most secure federal prison in America has the polished tile corridors of a modern regional high school and the empty stillness of summer break.

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The marquee inmates -- including Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker; "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid; Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber; FBI agent turned traitor Robert Hanssen; and Terry L. Nichols, convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing -- wait out their days in cellblocks the warden leads reporters quickly past on the first media tour since the Florence "supermax" opened 13 years ago.

"You say Moussaoui. You say Kaczynski. That's the smallest part of my population," said Warden Ron Wiley, holding his thumb a quarter-inch from his forefinger. "That is like a premier big man in the NBA. He comes along every 10 years.

"My major mission is inmates who were disrupting the population in other federal prisons."

Yet extremes define the Florence supermax. Conceived after two guards were murdered in a single day at the federal prison in Marion, Ill., the original successor to Alcatraz, the administrative maximum security institution, or ADX, does double duty as a punishment in its own right. Its 475 inmates account for just one-fourth of 1 percent of the 200,000 inmates in the federal prison system, but they are confined to single cells for at least 23 hours a day in sterile isolation and permanent lockdown.

"To paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, you will die with a whimper," U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema told convicted Sept. 11 plotter Moussaoui last year, as she dispatched him directly to this prison in the high desert 45 miles south of Colorado Springs.

"Just like any other place," said Daniel B. Graham, his tattooed arms crossed over his chest, as he stood in a wire exercise cage known as a dog run. He had arrived chained, shackled and escorted by two guards who took him out of his cell only after every other inmate was locked in.

The rules are even stricter in the 78-cell "control unit," where Graham, convicted on a firearms charge, said he twice has been sent. The unit houses the inmates who are barred from any contact with the outside world.

"If you thought the other units were quiet, that unit is super quiet. Super quiet," Wiley said.

Some prisoners do pipe up when the warden makes his weekly rounds, riot baton in hand: " 'Warden, I sent out a letter, and it's been six months and they haven't received it.' Or 'Warden, when I got my newspaper, this article was cut out of it,' " Wiley said.

The letters are delayed by censors, a security measure the ADX stepped up after it was revealed that three of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers had been writing to fellow terrorists abroad. The lapse ran against the mythology that Wiley said the media tour was arranged to undercut: " 'It's a dark, dirty dungeon. It's all underground. They rot in their cells.' "

In fact, the entire prison is aboveground, except for a subterranean corridor that links cellblocks to the lobby, an airy space with a trophy case, souvenirs for sale by the employees association (an "Alcatraz of the Rockies" watch cap is $8) and corporate teamwork posters. One near the conference room reads: "Sharpen the Saw."


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