“Pretty close” to hell.
That’s how former supermax prison warden Robert Hood — a man who has seen 20 years of hardened criminals with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and been in the room with some of the world’s worst terrorists — described the place where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may await his death.
He’s also referred to it as “the Harvard” of America’s prison system.
Now sentenced to death, the Boston bomber could await his execution at the notorious ADX Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.
After Tsarnaev’s formal sentencing this summer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will decide whether he is sent to the the ADX Supermax or a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. He could easily spend decades in the hell hole because of the lengthy appeals process.
The prison — called the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” and a “clean version of hell” — is known for housing violent inmates driven mad by their constant isolation.
Several prisoners filed a lawsuit alleging chronic abuse in the facility. The complaint is chilling:
“Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells,” the lawsuit says. “Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects. Others carry on delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to the reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to themselves and anyone who interacts with them.”
The ADX is the only federal Supermax prison in the country. It was built in 1994 as a super secure facility in response to a rash of prison outbreaks and attacks on guards. It’s basically where America puts you when it doesn’t want you to communicate with any other humans … ever.
Only the most dangerous criminals are sent there. Inmates include Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center Bombings, as well as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Aryan Brotherhood members and gang leaders end up within the Colorado facility’s walls as well.
Mental disorders are common in the facility, as are suicide attempts. After multiple suicide attempts, prisoner David Shelby said he heard God’s voice telling him to eat a finger. Shelby cut his pinky into several pieces and put it in his soup before eating it.
“I do know that when you put a person in a box for 23 hours a day and you tell them that’s the rest of your life, that each person has their own coping skills,” Hood told CNN. “When you see a person disrobing, throwing feces at a staff member going by — is that mental illness? Is that an issue where they’re self-destructing?”
Hood describes the prison he used to run as a “clean version of hell.”
“I don’t know what hell is, but I do know the assumption would be, for a free person, [the supermax is] pretty close to it,” Hood told 60 Minutes.
The lawsuit alleges that guards deliberately used cruel means to punish prisoners.
“Upon information and belief, ADX staff knowingly chose to place the seriously mentally ill prisoner in the feces-caked cell just vacated by another seriously mentally ill inmate and left him there for two days for the purpose of punishing him by means of another prisoner’s excrement,” alleged the lawsuit, which still has not been resolved as of the publishing of this article.
An Amnesty International report explored the conditions of the facility which now houses a little over 400 inmates.
The report found that the facility has eight housing units, all with regulations that vary slightly but are all extremely strict. Isolation is the theme of the Supermax facility, where inmates see the face of another human only a few hours a week.
For the rest of the time, most inmates are kept alone in cells for 22-24 hours a day with almost no contact with staff or people outside the prison. General population inmates live in cells of only 87 square feet of living space, which all face the same way so that prisoners cannot see one another.
Inside the cell is a small window for a little bit of light, but prisoners also have a light switch. Furniture consists of a metal, immobile bed and a desk and stool made of concrete. There is also a metal sink and toilet, as well as a tiny shower.
To break out of the cell, a prisoner would have to get through a wall of metal bars that acts as a sliding door along the entire wall of the cell. Then there is a steel door with a small window that opens to a corridor.
Even then, an escapee would have to get through a facility full of guards, over a barbed wire fence and past several guard towers.
Officers deliver meals to the inmates, who are allowed out a few hours a week for visitors, exercise and a possible trip to the library. For those excursions a prisoner is put in full restraints and under guard escort.
“These are places to silence us. To keep you controlled. I consider the supermax as a psychological torture chamber. That’s what it is,” convicted terrorist Shain Duka told the Guardian.
Most cells do have a television with about 60 channels and religious services. Some inmates have newspapers and periodicals, art and craft materials, and have the opportunity to write and receive letters.
Inmates are allowed 6 hours of non-legal related phone calls per year.
The H-unit, where Tsarnaev would likely be kept since he’s a terrorist, has similar cells and is even more strict. Showers are not in their cells. They receive about 10 hours out of their cell for exercise each week, sometimes alone or with a group of no more than five prisoners.
Harold Cunningham, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was sentenced to life in prison for several murders and robberies. He was transferred to the ADX Supermax in 2001, and has been diagnosed with several mental health disorders.
“I was treated and lived like an animal for years,” Cunningham wrote to Solitary Watch. “Stripped of all my clothes for weeks at a time…just a blanket chained to my bed, water turned off, no shower at times. No food and when they did feed me it was bad food, stale bread and cheese, rotten apple…I was beaten while handcuffed. All this on and off throughout five to six years. It was an up and down roller coaster ride in a bloody nightmare. I was at war physically and mentally. I survived but now I suffer from PTSD so it’s hard for me to talk about some of the things I’ve been through. I’ve tried to block a lot of it out by escaping through writing. Every day in here is like a landmine field, one wrong step and I may snap back to that nightmare, something I don’t want to do.”
Correspondence is monitored and can be limited to just one letter a week.
“The longer I spent in this period of segregation, the worse it gets on my efforts to survive, to maintain my state of mind and my mental capacity,”Mahmud Abouhalima, who was put in the H-Unit in 2005, said in the Amnesty International report. “I lost fifty pounds from being on hunger strike in H-Unit and hunger strikes became a regular occurrence in the unit, with medical staff coming every weekend to weigh each inmate. This was the first time in my life that I experienced the brutality of force feeding.”
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