In the United States there is only one Supermax prison currently still in operation: ADX Florence in Colorado. This is where the worst inmates in the country are held, especially terrorists and those that have made a habit of escaping from other facilities. The Unabomber is there, as well as El Chapo, the Boston Marathon Bomber, the Shoe Bomber, and others.
There are other high security facilities still in the country, but ADX Florence is a standout in terms of the intense security and isolation. Regardless of where an inmate is held, however, if they are in maximum security, life is going to be different.
10. Everything is Concrete
In a lot of prison movies and TV shows, you’ll see guards coming in and tossing prisoner’s cells looking for contraband. Beds are notorious for being hiding places, and prisoners will often stash things in the frame, in the seams of a mattress, and all kinds of other creative places. Supermax prisons eliminate a lot of these potential hiding places.
Just about everything in the cell at a Supermax prison is concrete. The bed is a slab of concrete, there’s a concrete stool and a concrete table. The floor, walls and ceiling are all concrete. This eliminates the potential for anything to be moved or defaced in any way.
9. There is No Sky
When reading descriptions of Supermax prisons, particularly ADX Florence, the description of the windows is usually brief. Often they mention that the windows are set high in the wall and are only big enough to let in a little light with a view of the sky. That seems to be a mistake. According to those who have been in the prisons, there is no view of the sky.
The windows are tall and narrow in most cells, but they are not designed to offer a view of anything. According to Travis Dusenbury who spent a decade in ADX Florence, the windows don’t show the outside world and that includes the sky. They face a courtyard and the angle seems to prevent a view of the actual sky, instead just letting light in. A CNN report on the cells gives the same impression. That means inmates could spend years, possibly their whole lives, locked up, never seeing the actual world again.
8. Exercise Can be Suspended for Months at a Time
For most of us, we base our entire understanding of life in prison on pop culture. We’ve all seen movies of prisoners out on the yard pumping iron and just hanging around. It’s like a school recess only with the threat of serious gang violence and armed guards.
A Supermax prison does not view exercise the same way. Prisoners are entitled to at most 10 hours per week of exercise. This does not necessarily mean outside. In fact, at ADX Florence, a prisoner may not see the sky when this happens. If they do go outside, the cages may offer contact with another inmate in an adjacent cage and a view of the sky for an hour or two.
Exercise rooms may just be different, slightly larger cells with a stationary piece of equipment on which you can do chin-ups. There are also cages that do not offer a view of the outside world. They have nothing in them at all but allow an inmate enough room to walk in a small circle.
Despite the official rules for exercise, they aren’t always followed. Syed Fahad Hashmi is an American citizen who was arrested in the UK after a friend used his apartment to store clothes that were later shipped to al-Qaeda. When he was extradited to the US, he was placed in solitary and experienced no exercise for three straight years. This was before he even went to trial.
7. Gitmo Costs a Ton
In the past there has been considerable attention given to the coat of housing inmates in various prisons. A death row inmate is oddly more expensive than a life sentence inmate and can cost upwards of $1.12 million more than a general population inmate.
At maximum security prisons, the costs associated with keeping someone in lockup are still steep. It’s estimated to be between $60,000 and $70,000 to keep a prisoner house in a supermax prison per year. And while that seems pretty extreme, it has nothing on Guantanamo Bay.
Although the Biden administration declared its intent to shut down Guantanamo Bay in 2021, while it is still in operation the costs are massive. It’s estimated that each prisoner costs the US government about $900,000 a year.
6. Nutraloaf is Served as Punishment
A lot of things that go on in Supermax prisons has been called cruel and unusual punishment. From extended solitary confinement to things like force feeding, which we’ll address later. But there is another food-based punishment that American prisons are infamous for – nutraloaf.
In a very technical sense, nutraloaf is food. There is no standard recipe for it and many prisons make their own on site. It’s a dense log of vegetable matter, sometimes mashed or shredded, mixed with things like beans and grains to create what is essentially a nutritionally complete but utterly disgusting food. They will often mash together and bake leftovers to create it.
A food critic tried to review nutraloaf once and mentioned how their throat wanted to close up and not let it pass. The taste was impossible to describe, and they settled on “blank” as the taste.
It has become an effective deterrent to breaking prison rules as most inmates, faced with the potential of eating the loaf every meal for weeks, will quickly fall in line.
5. You May Not Have Human Contact for Years
Dealing with Covid-19 has given a lot of people a new appreciation for isolation and what it means to go with limited human contact in their lives. It has forced many people to avoid friends and family for the better part of a year. But you’re still able to talk freely, see people in stores and on the streets, even if you are wearing masks, and all that. Now contrast that to life in a supermax prison.
They may shackle prisoners in isolation to their concrete bed for days or even weeks at a time. Contact with staff can also be extremely limited. Some inmates may have as little as one minute per day of contact with a guard. They designed the cells in such a way that there is actually a sort of anteroom between the cell and the hallway, each secured with a door. All cells face the same way, so there is no cell across the hall. There is no way to see another human from your cell, and unless someone is yelling in the cellblock, a prisoner will not even hear another person.
Exercise, which is limited to one or two hours of solitary walking in a cage, can be canceled for no reason. Some prisoners may graduate to a special program which allows them access to slightly more freedoms, including exercise in cages next to other inmates, but it’s possible to spend years without ever seeing or hearing another inmate.
4. You Get 60 Channels on TV
One of the few things prisoners in a maximum security have access to to keep themselves busy is television. TVs can be either black and white or color, and it’s possible for some prisoners to buy a TV at the commissary, but it will cost a couple hundred dollars at least.
TVs come with upwards of 60 channels that include educational and religious networks as well as news networks like CNN or MSNBC. Most maximum security prisons will not offer local television options so that prisoners are not able to keep up to date on what’s happening nearby. This includes not being able to get information on new inmates who are being sent to the prison, which is sometimes reported on local news.
TV is allowed to be viewed 24 hours a day, though headphones are supposed to be used and the speakers are disabled. Some prisoners are able to tweak their headphones to make them louder, however.
3. You Get 6 Hours of Phone Time Per Year
Few people would argue that someone in prison should have access to a phone or the internet whenever they want it and for whatever reason. In a typical prison, they permit inmates up to 300 minutes of monitored phone time every month. This is not the case in a supermax prison.
At ADX, they permit a general population prisoner two 15-minute phone calls every month. This doesn’t include legal calls. That works out to only six hours of contact with friends or family in a year. Since ADX Florence is located so far from anywhere, about 100 miles from Denver, visits are difficult to arrange at the best of times.
Technically, prisoners are allowed to have five visits per month at up to seven hours in length. These will be conducted in secure rooms behind plexiglass. That said, this almost never happens because of the remote location. Amnesty International indicated that, despite there being in the neighborhood of 400 prisoners at ADX Florence, on the average weekend there will be maybe five or six visitors. Some prisoners go for seven years with no one visiting at all.
2. You Can Still Socialize
Despite everything we’ve already said, the situation may not be as bleak as it seems all the time in a maximum security prison. It’s still incredibly bleak, but there are official rules and then the unofficial way things work. So officially every inmate may be in solitary cells for 23 hours per day, but unofficially they may still be able to chat with others.
The most common way for an inmate to socialize is when they are in something like the Step Down Program, which has less stringent rules and allows inmates to be in adjacent cages for exercise time. But there are a few less common methods available.
Travis Dusenbury shared some of the tricks he learned after his decade in a supermax about how you can still chat with other people. The most obvious method was just being loud. The cells are designed to offer limited contact, but it was not impossible to yell into a hall and have someone in a nearby cell yell back.
Somewhat more industrious was the prison plumbing phone system. If an inmate uses a toilet paper roll, they can blow the water out of the pipes below their sink. Then they can talk into the pipe and it was possible for an inmate in another cell, depending on how the pipes lined up, to hear and reply.
1. Hunger Strikes Do Not Work
With the conditions at a Supermax prison sounding like an absolute nightmare, you may think some prisoners would try to mount a protest. In the past, given the limitations of what you can do to show your disdain for a system in which you’re contained, hunger strikes have worked for some inmates. Not so in a maximum security facility.
At ADX, in the part of the facility known as H Unit where the most notorious criminals are housed under even more strict isolation than normal, hunger strikes do not work. Amnesty International has reported that guards can and will force feed inmates who attempt to go on hunger strikes. In fact, they reported upwards of 900 forced feedings between 2001 and 2014.
When prisoners demonstrate they are not willing to eat, guards will shackle them and take them to the medical facility. After medical officers weigh them and assess their condition. They offer the inmate the chance to voluntarily drink a nutritional supplement by mouth. If they refuse then they are fully restrained, a tube is inserted in their nose and they will be fed whether they like it or not. This will happen every single day if the prison deems it necessary.