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ADX Media Visit Staged To Dispel "Myths And Rumors"

On the sixth anniversary of the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks, Ron Wiley, warden of the Federal Supermax known as ADX, staged a tightly controlled first-ever media visit at the Federal stronghold. Its stated purpose was an education to dispel "myths and rumors"; its effect was media-generated banality culled from a spoon-fed party line. "We saw only what they wanted us to see, and only that," reports Andrew Cohen, an attorney and legal affairs analyst for CBS News. The environment was one of total control "that extended to when we were allowed to sit down inside the briefing room" Cohen said.

The tour consisted of pristine concrete corridors with "the polished tile of a modern regional high school and the empty stillness of summer break," reports Karl Vick of the Washington Post. Vick and Cohen toured with other reporters from local and national media such as CBS 60 Minutes, CNN, Fox News, the Los Angeles Times, the Pueblo Chieftain (Colorado), and the Canon City Daily Record (Colorado). They passed by housing units, a recreation pen (dogrun) or two, more sterile corridors, and saw a handful of hand-picked, docile, polite prisoners in general population or "step down" units preparing to eventually transfer out of ADX. Wiley's "Swiss-watch like tour direction" did not allow the reporters the necessary access to "provide information in order to quell concerns of the secretive federal prison," wrote Vie Vela of the Daily Record. When reporters complained, Wiley retorted with the education theme. Clearly, the tour was not about reporting the news but controlling the news.

It speaks volumes to Wiley's and the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) stated purpose of "education" and "dispelling what we've heard" that no one was allowed near the control units where the prisoners claimed to be the most dangerous and disruptive are housed within the Federal prison system. Not the tight-leashed prisoners the media met, but infamous prisoners such as Theodore Kaczynski, Terry Nichols, Richard Reid, Zacharias Moussaoui, Robert Hanssen and Ramzi Yousef; often found at the core of the very myths the tour failed to dispel. Wiley says these prisoners are "the smallest part of my population," failing to explain why reporters were still kept away from the bulk of the remaining population.

Myths. The myths Wiley and the BOP were attempting to destroy are that "It's a dark, dirty, dungeon. It's all underground. They rot in their cells." Hence the tightly controlled lockstep, 100-minute, no-cameras-allowed tour of a bright, clean, above ground facility. The controlled prisoner contact was strictly with docile prisoners close to leaving ADX who would not endanger their transition out by acting up or saying the wrong thing. One prisoner, Daniel Graham, commented on how it's "just like any other place" and is "super quiet." Jack Stancell says "you get used to it." Another, Rodney Hamrick, said "oh, you know me."
Still another, Mark Ford, said he spends his recreation time "not trying to do too much." Hardly earth shattering commentary from those in the bowels of ADX. One unidentified talkative prisoner said "me, personally, I like the solitude. I'm at peace with myself."

The "rot in their cells" includes the prisoners' mental health. Terry Kupers has examined dozens of prisoners in various supermax prisons and testified as an expert in numerous conditions of confinement lawsuits.
The psychiatrist from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, says that these environments tend to induce psychoses, like the 1960s studies found using sensory deprivation environments. Those in the depths of a supermax such as ADX "are, on average, the most severely psychotic people I have seen in my entire 25 years of psychiatric practice," Kupers said.
ADX treats these people with two resident psychologists who perform simple interviews at the cell doors, hardly the confidential doctor-patient environment that engenders genuine psychiatric treatment.
The 65 ADX prisoners on serious psych meds have them prescribed by video link with a BOP psychiatrist in Springfield, Missouri.

Medical care at ADX and throughout the Florence Correctional Complex is hard pressed as well with only two of five physicians and eight of 11 physician's assistants on staff. Without blinking an eye, ADX health services unit Captain Rod Bauer said no prisoner has ever been denied medical services in the 13 years since ADX opened.

Nothing in the tour demonstrated the conditions that lead to increased assaultive behavior, increased mental health problems, and increased recidivism demonstrated by supermax prisoners across the country when released from these facilities, findings gleaned from 25,000 supermax prisoners in 44 states and reported in Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons by the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute (March 2006). Sterile corridors and docile prisoners just can't dispel the realities of supermax prisons.

Rumors. The rumors attempting to be countered are that ADX is not entirely safe and secure because of inadequate staffing and that the surrounding community is endangered by the lack of a perimeter fence.
Wiley dismissed the need for a fence around the complex telling reporters that each facility has fencing and that an additional complex fence would be a "$20 million farce that would do nothing but spend 20 million of the taxpayers' dollars."

But Wiley became irritated when reporters insisted on raising the issue of chronic under staffing, quickly denying such rumors as false and exclaiming that "we run a safe and secure institution, and we're very comfortable with the staffing levels. To think otherwise is actually to insult me." Yet this tour comes only two weeks after a press conference at the Colorado state capital where state lawmakers and union officials called upon the federal government to fully staff ADX to counter dangerously low staffing levels. Wiley claims the facility is staffed at 90 percent, but state Representative Buffy McFayden takes issue with these numbers and says "there is no question there is a shortage of staff" and worries that "someone is going to get killed." She said she's "heard the same script each time" from Wiley and other BOP officials.
"This is not a cry wolf story," she says, "this is serious." Expressing her objectivity, McFayden went on to say that she doesn't "have a dog in this fight except to maintain prison safety." She's called on "President Bush and Congress to personally take note of what's happening at Supermax."

While union officials say staffing may once have been at 92 percent, it's around 75 percent now. Mike Schnobric, president of the prison council with the American Federation of Government Employees says there are 230 guard positions at ADX with only 180 filled (78 percent). "This isn't a new situation, it's a repeated situation," Schnobric says, adding that it's made worse by posts left unmanned when guards are sick, on medical leave or on vacation. Local 1302 President Barbara Batulis has no idea where Wiley and company get their figures. "The numbers don't lie," she says, "we are continually losing staff." Moreover, a federal arbitrator has agreed with union officials' dangerous conditions assessment, reports Vela.

Conceived of after two guards were killed in the same day at USP Marion (1983), the initial successor to Alcatraz, and opened in 1994, ADX or administrative maximum (the "Alcatraz of the Rockies") sits on a 640-acre Florence Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, that includes the maximum security United States Penitentiary, a medium security Federal Correctional Institute, and a minimum security Federal Prison Camp. Of the Complex's 3,200 prisoners, ADX houses roughly 478 prisoners characterized by the BOP as the most dangerous and disruptive prisoners in their 200,000 prisoner system. According to BOP literature, this "includes inmates who are assaultive or seriously disruptive, those with terrorists links, and those prone to escape." It includes many high profile prisoners who are none of those things but merely disliked by the government. Such as Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who spied for Russia for decades or Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," both of whom were sent to ADX straight from court and whom no one claims is assaultive, prone to escape or disruptive. Instead, they made the FBI look stupid and inept.

The environment is one of 23-hour per day lockdown, the other hour spent in exercise dog runs "straight out of the circus," writes Cohen. The cellhouses or units are above ground, connected to a lobby via a subterranean corridor where Alcatraz of the Rockies souvenirs are sold.
The cells are 12' by 7'4" concrete with concrete shelves, desk, stool and bed. A combination stainless steel sink and commode round out the amenities. An inches-wide slot window looks inward at other buildings affording prisoners no view of the nearby Sangre de Cristo Rocky Mountains.

Life at ADX is populated with mostly solitude sprinkled with some closed-circuit and cable television, a lending library and law library, GED and ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, religious services and even yoga which Paul Zohn, one of the resident psychologists exclaims "they love it." Board games such as "Fact or Crap" can be checked out by the prisoners earning their way out of ADX to the nearby USP through their docile behavior.

This daily life includes plenty of censorship such as newspapers arriving a month late while guards clip articles considered security or mental health risks. Letters are likewise censored, especially after it came to light that three of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers were corresponding with others the Federal Government considers terrorists.
This prompted Colorado U.S. Senators Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar along with then U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to tour ADX in February 2007 with a corresponding increase in censorship.

The tour appeared to be in response to the story which appeared in both Westword and PLN, Fortress Of Solitude: The Bureau Of Prisons Is As Good At Keeping Prisoners In As It Is At Keeping Reporters Out, PLN, Oct. 2007, by Alan Prendergast that noted that since 2001 the BOP had denied every single media request to interview a prisoner at ADX. The show tour by the BOP keeps the denial of all media interviews intact. Tellingly, Prendergast was not invited on the tour. He is the only journalist in Colorado that has reported criticially on BOP operations in the state since the Florence, prison complex opened.

The ensuing puff pieces the tour produced indicate the BOP need not worry about a critical or discerning media. They are more than happy to regurgitate the party line.

Unlike the famous quote of T.S. Eliot, "We must cease from exploration; and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time," this fluff tour of ADX did not leave us knowing the place for the first time but realizing that we can be fooled just as easily inside ADX as out.

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