Supermax Prisons in the United States

By Charles Hanson, from insidetime issue April 2011

The state of Colorado in the United States, famous for its towering Rocky Mountains, lush green forests and crystal blue skies is associated with extravagant scenery and unsurpassed beauty. Well-known for the mile high city of Denver with its popular ski resorts, itís a symbol of all things good.

Supermax Prisons in the United States

However, amid all of this beauty and delight lies a place that is in direct contrast to its picturesque surroundings; a place that is a symbol of all things bad, evil, and corrupt; an enormous monument to the ills of humanity set against a Rocky Mountain backdrop. Here, in a secluded valley just west of the idyllic town of Pueblo lies a place that houses the worst of the worst of humanity murderers, terrorists, serial killers in a fortress-like dungeon. This place, which has been decried as being inhumane and cruel is the most punitive and restrictive federal prison in the United States: The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility(ADX) in Florence, Colorado.

Opened in November 1994, the residents in the surrounding area of Fremont County welcomed the prison as a source of employment in a time of economic hardship.

At the time, the county was already home to nine existing prisons. However, the lure of between 750 to 900 permanent jobs, in addition to another 1,000 temporary jobs during the prison's construction, led residents in the area to raise 160,000 dollars to purchase 600 acres of land for the new prison.

The prison designed jointly by DLR Group and LKA Partners of Colorado Springs,
generally houses around 430 male prisoners, each assigned to one of six security levels where the cell furniture is made almost entirely out of poured concrete, including the desk, stool, and bed. Each cell contains a toilet that shuts off if blocked which prevents a prisoner from flooding his cell, a shower that runs on a timer also to prevent flooding, and a sink missing a ‘potentially dangerous’ trap.
Prisoners may purchase a small black and white speaker-less TV set and keep the following items: one ballpoint pen filler; five books and magazines; one address book; five greeting cards; 15 photographs; 15 sheets of writing paper. The following items are prohibited: hats; headbands; sweatshirts; undershirts; slippers; cotton swabs; hair conditioner, grease, or gel; lip balm; handkerchiefs; calendars; clocks; hobby and craft materials; musical instruments; and, bizarrely, correspondence course materials. The absurdity of some of the prohibitions imposed on these Supermax prisoners was perhaps best illustrated when officials at the prison turned down a request by a prisoner to receive a copy of two books written by the then presidential candidate, Barack Obama, on the grounds that it would be "potentially detrimental to national security". In any event, these are considered privileges that may be taken away as punishment.

The 4 in (10 cm) by 4 ft (1.2 m) cell windows are designed to prevent the prisoner from knowing his specific location within the complex because he can see only the sky and roof through them. Additionally, inmates exercise in what has been described as an "empty swimming pool," so they do not know their location for possible escape. Telephone calls with the outside world are forbidden and food is hand-delivered by prison officers whilst participation in programs including religious services, educational/work/job training, congregate dining and exercise are strongly prohibited by the administration. Also greatly limited is access to medical and psychiatric care. The prison as a whole contains a multitude of motion detectors and cameras, 1,400 remote-controlled steel doors, and 12 ft (3.66 m) high razor wire fences, laser beams, pressure pads, and attack dogs guard the area between the prison walls and razor wire. This penal construction and operation theory dictates that inmates remain in solitary confinement for 22–23 hours each day.

ADX Florence operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice October was constructed as a response to two incidents that occurred on 22, 1983, in which inmates murdered their escorting prison officers at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. Relatively lax security procedures allowed each prisoner, while walking down a hall, to turn to the side and approach a particular cell so an accomplice could unlock his handcuffs with a stolen key and provide him with a knife. Two officers were killed in two separate incidents by this tactic.

As a response, the prison went into "permanent lockdown" and transformed itself into a "control unit" prison. Following the killings, Norman Carlson, then director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, persuaded the federal government that a more secure type of prison needed to be designed. There was a need to isolate uncontrollable prisoners from officers and from other prisoners for the sake of ‘security and safety’. Marion therefore became a model for the subsequent construction of ADX Florence, a facility built as a control unit prison.

Imagine living in an 8-by-12 prison cell, in solitary confinement for an indefinite period which might mean for the rest of one’s life. Your entire world will consist of a dank, cinder block room with a narrow window only three inches high, opening up to an outdoor cement cage, cynically dubbed, "the yard." If you're lucky, you spend one hour five days a week in that outdoor cage, where you gaze up through a wire mesh roof and hope for a glimpse of the sun. If you talk back to the guards or act out in any way, it might result in only one precious hour’s exercise per week.

The most damaging aspect of control units is the physical and mental torture that is imposed upon their victims. First, the methods of how physical torture is inflicted: Forced cell extractions by militarily attired, baton-wielding guards are constantly used without cause or warning. Sometimes these cell extractions are so abusive that prisoners require extensive medical attention. Devices such as tazer guns, pepper spray, maces and manacles are used and four-point restraints and body-tying are routinely overused, despite the fact that such procedures have caused bodily harm and death whilst dogs are often encouraged to bit the prisoner if any form of resistance is shown.

Another cruel practice is "caging". This is where a scantily clad or naked prisoner is held in outdoor cages for hours in cold and rainy weather. The systematic use of fire-hosing shackled prisoners while in their cells, with high-pressure cold water, then leaving standing water in the cell, usually accompanies a prisoner being put in "strip cell status." While frigid temperatures make it impossible to sleep or even lay down, a bright light shines upon the cell 24 hours a day.

There is increasing consensus among United Nations agencies and international human-rights organizations that the definition of torture contained in the U.S. signed U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ? mistreatment by officials that inflicts "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" for punishment or coercion ? applies to extended solitary.

In 2006 the UN Committee Against Torture expressed its concern about the "prolonged isolation periods" in American Supermaxes and "the effect such treatment has on an inmate’s mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." In 2008, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, recommended that solitary confinement "should be kept to a minimum, used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort" — all conditions violated by U.S. Supermaxes.

According to David Fathi, head of the American Civil Liberties Union prison project, the prolonged isolation imposed in Supermax prisons “may well violate U.S. treaty obligations.” PHR's Raymond said flatly: "Solitary confinement is definitely recognized internationally as torture."

A 2007 Federal Bureau of Prisons (BofP) report lists family ties as integral to rehabilitation and successful re-entry into the general community. However, for many inmates, the lack of phone access, a prohibitive visitation process, and the distance from various parts of the United States makes it nearly impossible to maintain those ties. The scheduling and approval process at Florence Supermax requires weeks of planning and multiple rounds of paperwork. If visitors arrive late for their appointment, they are forced to begin the process all over again. With no public transportation near the prison the process becomes more than some people can handle or realistically afford.

The BofP also cites access to educational and vocational programs -especially for minority populations as another key element in prisoner rehabilitation. Yet no such opportunities exist at Florence.

Once inside their small, sparsely furnished and meagrely provisioned cell, prisoners must still follow strict rules and regulations. Prisoners are issued with the following directives: yelling or loud noises or disruptive behaviour is prohibited. You may not tape or attach anything to any surface of your cell; your mattress must stay on your bed at all times. You must lie on the bed with your head towards the toilet. Failure to comply or any act of disobedience, large or small, will constitute a disciplinary offence and may result in an extension of the prisoner's time in Supermax.

On the rare occasions that prisoners leave their housing unit for a medical appointment or an infrequent no-contact family visit they will be shackled and escorted by a minimum of two guards. They will also be body-searched twice once before leaving the cell and once before being returned to it. Other than cases of complicated medical emergencies which cannot be treated in the prison's medical clinic and court appearances which cannot be conducted via video-conferencing, Supermax prisoners will not leave the prison. For those confined there for an indeterminate time, that can mean the duration of their prison sentence or natural life.

Florence, the only Federal Supermax prison operates at the deep and far end of a vast (over 1.6 million prisoners) and punitive American criminal justice system. There are however other Supermaxes within state systems. These prisons emerged as an addition to the traditional segregation units that still operate within that system.

Their spread across the US from the early 1990s (the Federal government and some 44 states across the US now operate at least one Supermax prison) has found justification in apparently rational arguments for their value as a prison management tool in isolating risk and controlling violence in the prison system as a whole.

On 9 July 210, the European Court of Human Rights temporarily halted the extradition of four terrorism suspects from the United Kingdom to the United States. The court concluded that the applicants had raised a serious question whether their possible long-term incarceration in a U.S. Supermax prison would violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The court noted that “complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason,” and called for additional submissions from the parties before finally deciding the applicants’ claim.

The court’s decision was not a surprise. International human rights bodies have repeatedly expressed the view that Supermax prisons — in which prisoners are held in near-total social isolation, sometimes for years on end — may violate international human rights law. In 2006, the U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed concern about “the extremely harsh regime” in US Supermax prisons, which it said could violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a human rights treaty ratified by the United States in 1994.

Despite these warnings, Supermax prisons are common in the United States. In the 1990s they were a raging fad, yet another round in the perpetual “tough on crime” political bidding war. Suddenly every state had to build one — Virginia was so tough it built two. By the end of the decade, more than 30 states, as well as the federal government, were operating a Supermax facility or unit.

The case of British citizen Gary McKinnon the alleged computer hacker who the United States claims hacked into sensitive defence data faces extradition to the United States ,whilst District Judge John Zani, sitting at City of Westminster magistrates court in London in February 2011 said there was "ample evidence" to justify the extradition to Texas of British businessman Christopher Tappin on US charges of conspiring to sell weapons parts to Iran where a conviction could bring a jail term of 35 years whilst Wikileaks founder Julian Assagne at present on bail from a British court too could face extradition to the United States for revealing sensitive U.S defence data on his website.

In the United States, at least 40,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement with another 50-80,000 in segregation units, many additionally isolated but those numbers are not released.

Control Units are designed to administer the very most in sensory deprivation and dehumanization of inmates and essentially serve only one purpose and that is to control society and in my view, must be abolished, and the victims of these dungeons treated as survivors of torture.

Charles Hanson – formerly resident at HMP Blantyre House

Back to top

Comments about this article

30/3/2011 Steven Battram

Sounds like most Healthcare Centres in British prisons. Any prisoner in a British prison experiencing mental health problems can expect similar condtions. At HMP Moorlands, which sounds very similar to the Supermax prisons in America, prisoners are exercised, crammed in small walled and fenced in yards. HMP Moorlands is supposed to be a Cat C prison not Supermax. But that's how the POA love it at HMP Moorlands. If the POA can make conditions worse for prisoners they will. HMP Moorlands, I expose as the British Supermax.

31/3/2011 Steven Battram

I must add, there are huge exercise yards at HMP Moorlands, but prisoners are not allowed to use them. Instead prisoners are crammed, like sardines into very small exercise yards.

I would like to see HMP Moorlands privatised. It is the only way to remedy the disease. Nice to hear HMP Birmingham is to be privatised. At a stroke prisoners will be treated more decently.


I am a former prisoner and founder of Bajito Onda a 501c3 / a peace outreach for prisoners and gang members. I have worked with over 10,000 Latino gang members and exes in the past 25 years. I am a gang expert and violence prevention specialist turned Licensor Brand Owner fashion designer entreprenuer. I knew a prisoner in Florence. He did some amazing art for BO Fashions and merchandise. He did call me although it says no calls are permitted. He spent many years there and wrote about it to me. Same as many prisoners do. The mental torture Florence invokes is horrible. He used to tell me of his job to clean up after a prisoner 'paroled himself out' aka suicide. He used to serve other members of the pod coffee, and other little jobs. I'm sure he only lasted a few minutes when he was paroled with no pre-release conditioning back to a very unsuspecting freeworld of haters against exoffenders, societal injustices that await. Prisoners just aren't going to take the rejection lightly. They will get even. That's what society wants, another victim, another crime, another sentence, and another paycheck on the other side of the constantly revolving door.

I have managed I feel to get back at society for putting me in prison for helping immigrants. I have managed to take prisoners art, put it on merchandise, which is now licensed worldwide into a top major brand alongside Ed Hardy, Disney, Marvel, etc. and open a crack in society that once it is widened will never close - our people will finally have a voice and a face against all odds.
Thank you for a good and acurate article - To the guy in England, he needs to spend a few years in a supermax and then write his little comments.

Our brand. Bajito Onda is now on checkout counters everywhere - produced by Licensees we are always looking for more who have the balls enough to roll with us - we keep it clean but oh so over the edge people who love our merch represent it with pride knowing we are not another sell out Brand... Our Brand gives Back.

now on sale in japan, poland, brasil, and mexico as well as usa.

featured in Newsweek, NYTimes, World, Univision, Telemundo, ESPN, NPR, CBS, FOX, Dallas Observer Cover, Tucson Weekly Cover stories.

Post a comment

This article appears under the following categories...
Human Rights
Overseas/Foreign Prisons

Summary of headlines for April 2011
Post tariff IPPs a Disgrace
Locked Up with no end in sight
Dying inside?
Change VS Reality
So, sue me
Things that make you go ĎHmmm!í
Suddenly youíre 60
Last man standing
Current page: Supermax Prisons in the United States
The Butler Trust Annual Award Ceremony 2010-11
Month by Month
Just Passing Through
Heaven from Hell
Match Point
Is it a step too far?
The dilemma of maintaining innocence
Happy Mother's Day!

Back to top


Inside Time Latest Issue

Issue : December 2014

Headlines | Mailbag | Poems
Book List | PSI Updates


Back Issues

Back Issues

View backissues and extras

Browse and Search Tools

View headlines by category
Search headlines | All headlines
Search mailbag | All mailbag
Search poems | All poems

December 2014 Headlines
> Treat Prisoners as Human Beings, Not Criminals
> What are prisons for
> A search for any trace of the governmentís Rehabilitation Revolution
> Tell us why you did it?... You must be joking I didnít do it
> Care Act - what does it mean for prisoners
> Doctor Frankenstein and his monster
> Human Rights: truth and lies
> Scapegoating the undeserving poor
> Interview
> The first Miscarriage of Justice
> Month by Month - December 2014
> The 2014 Longford Trust Awards
> Is it all in the mind
> Time
> Learning in prison
> Take your first Steps to Success in 2015
> Spotlight Police and Crime Commissioners
> From over the wall
> Over-tariff IPPs: an appeal for your stories
> Paperwork is the key
> Adjudication - donít let those days count against you
> Insider Dealing
> Christmas Stories
> Christmas Messages
> Christmas Messages

About Us

About insidetime
Editorial Team

InsidePoetry Book

insidepoetry book New! Volume 5 of
insidepoetry book
is now available!

A collection of poems by prisoners of all backgrounds.

Availabe to buy from this site! Volume 1,2,3 and 4 are also still available and you can SAVE by purchasing bundles!

USP Service

USP from Inside Time

The Useful Services for Prisoners scheme from insidetime provides discounts, vouchers and other benefits from USP Group Members for Prisoners, their families and legal advisors. Click the image above to read more about it.


You can subscribe to insidetime Newspaper and get the paper each month delivered to your door!


Advertise your business or solicitors office to a highly defined target audience.

Other Publications

Inside Time has produced a number of books and publications you can purchase online.


Contact Us

All contact info for the Operations office and the Editorial Team.

Site Map

Our site map page contains links to all pages on the insidetime site.

External Links

We have a number of external websites which you may be interested on our Links Page.

Social Networking


Inside Information


Everything you need to know about visiting people in prison; procedures, opening times, directions etc.

Comprehensive information about each prison regime; lock down times, facilities, healthcare etc.

*NEW* Detailed information about IRC - Immigration Removal Centres.

insideinformation Book

insideinformation book
The insideinformation book

A comprehensive guide to prisons and prison related services, designed and compiled by former prisoners.


Help and Support

Various pages of information for help and support organisations and networks for those in custody as well as recently released. Also information for friends and family.

Grants and Funding

This grants and funding pdf document aims to meet the need of prisoners and ex-offenders for accurate, up to date information on the supplementary funding available to prisoners.

Rules and Regulations

Information on rules & regulations used throughout the prison service.

Glossary of Terms

The Glossary of Prison Related Terms explains what all the acronyms and terms stand for with prison related matters. Includes links to external sites to further explain things.

Fact Sheets

We have produced many Prison Related Fact Sheets inc. Legal Fact Sheets, Parole Fact Sheets and Other related information.


Find a Solicitor

You can search our solicitor database for listings of solicitors in your area that provide the services you require.

Find a Barrister

You can search our barrister database for listings of barristers in your area that provide the services you require.

Address Finder

You can search our address database in many ways to retrieve contact information for all those elusive addresses you need in a hurry.

Prison Law pdf

This document provides details of leading training providers who offer sound professional training.

Other Publications

Inside Information has produced a number of books and publications you can purchase online.

Site Map

Our site map page contains links to all pages on the insideinformation site.

Contact Us

Use the Contact Us Feedback form to send us suggestions, plus our address and phone numbers.



Inside Justice

insidejustice was launched in July 2010 to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice.

Full introduction is on the insidejustice homepage

insidejustice Cases

insidejustice Articles & Reviews

insidejustice Advisory Panel Members

insidejustice Sponsors page

insidejusticecontact details