Local Journalist Gets Supermax Tour

September 13 2007, 8:18 AM

Denver journalist and CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen was one of a small group of journalists permitted to tour the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado Tuesday. It was the first time journalists have been afforded the opportunity. He didn't get to see the prison's most infamous prisoners like Terry Nichols or Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" but he saw and heard enough to write an interesting article. Some highlights:

We saw cement desks and bed frames and stainless steel toilets and sinks. We saw cages--straight out of the circus--where inmates who are going along with the warden's "program" are allowed to "recreate" outside for about 10 hours a week. We saw that the windows in the cells are only a few inches wide and all look inward toward the other windows of other cells. No one has a view of the beautiful Rocky Mountains which surround the facility in the southern portion of Colorado.

Warden Riley says he speaks with each of the inmates personally every week.

The high-profile prisoners, he said, are actually among the best behaved in the facility. "It is super quiet" where they are confined, he said, "and they exhibit a lot of discipline and respect for authority."

The purpose of allowing the journalists to tour the facility was public-relations. The warden wants to boost the image of Supermax and contradict the negative public myths about the place. That's a tall order considering, as Cohen writes:

It may be a high-tech, super-secure prison but it is still a prison, where men will live and die in 68-square-foot cells.

There are more observations and details of Cohen's experience at his Washington Post blog, Bench Conference, including this one.

But my lasting impressions of my morning at Supermax are of the quiet of the place and of the hundreds and hundreds of remote-controlled cameras. The level of control exercised over virtually every single function is remarkable, and for most of the inmates there, this soulless, artificial world is all they will ever again know.

The "quiet of the place" comment really resonated with me. Coincidentally, I spent yesterday at one of Colorado's high security prisons, visiting a client. The quiet was eerily unsettling. I didn't see a single inmate outdoors. None were tending the grounds or at recreation. Even once inside, the only inmate I saw during my four hour visit was my client. Instead of an attorney-client conference room, we visited in the large room where inmates can meet with their families on visiting days. It wasn't a visiting day so my client and I were the only ones in the cavernous room. A guard watched us the entire time and we were on camera but our conversation wasn't recorded. It was clean as a whistle. There were loads of vending machines, offering everything from assorted flavors of Ben and Jerry's ice cream (for $5 a pint) to hot Oreida french fries. The fries machine had a sticker with the fat and calorie count of the fries. As I was leaving, I noticed a sign advising of a new regulation now in effect. All visitors would have to open their mouths for an oral cavity inspection, part of a new program designed to reduce the likelihood of contraband being introduced. The staff couldn't have been nicer or more professional. But, like Andrew said of his Supermax visit, visitors only get to see the part of the facility they want us to see. We don't get to see what prison life is like in the cell-blocks. I doubt it's as pleasant as the visiting room. [Cross-posted at TalkLeft.com]

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