How to Survive a Supermax Prison

Letters from inmates shed light on survivng conditions some call cruel.

ByABC News
August 1, 2007, 12:32 PM

Aug. 2, 2007 — -- They are among the most secure places on earth -- hard to get into, and nearly impossible to get out of.

They're called supermax prisons. There are 31 of them around the country, and one of the biggest is the ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colo. It's the only federal supermax in the country; the others are state prisons.

The ADX Florence prison is home to about 500 of the most dangerous criminals in the country. Almost all inmates have been transferred from other facilities, where they were deemed a serious lethal threat or a high-escape risk.

But unlike most American prisons -- relegated to the darkest or least populated edges of town -- this supermax sits in picturesque Florence, with a population of just 3,800, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

The paradox isn't lost on Florence Mayor Cindy Cox, a breezy woman with an infectious laugh who boasts of the antique-hunting opportunities in Florence and the indelible American charms of a town where people still leave their doors unlocked at night.

There is no fear whatsoever," she told ABC News. "There has never been an incident. You talk to people, and they don't even know Supermax is up there. It's the American criminal capital of the world," Cox said.

She said that the only time the prison even comes up in local conversation is when they feature employees of the month in the paper. "And a lot of families follow their inmate family members around. There will be some issues in the school because some of the kids come from gang families."

No one has ever escaped from the prison since it was built in 1994.

Deep in the recesses of the Florence facility, inmates tick away the hours in solitude, with little sunlight, spending 22-plus hours a day in their cells and no access to the bucolic world just outside the prison walls.

The prison is home to a who's who of criminals. "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid.