Just two hours outside of Denver, in the parched Rocky Mountain foothills, sits the highest-security prison in America. Its official name is the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, but everyone calls it the ADX. The ADX in Florence, Colorado, is the one and only federal “Supermax” prison, home to the most dangerous and escape-prone inmates in federal lockup. Among nearly 400 male inmates at ADX are several infamous characters. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious drug kingpin, was sent to ADX after escaping twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico. The “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, is in there. So is Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber; the 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist Ramzi Yousef; and Michael Swango, a doctor who poisoned and killed up to 60 of his patients. Many have committed murder – either on the outside or in other prisons, including killing guards. Others are hardcore gang members who have ordered or carried out prison hits.
And a significant portion of the men housed at ADX – as many as a third by one estimate – have a diagnosed mental illness that makes them a serious threat to themselves and others. But critics of the ADX and other Supermax prisons argue that regardless of these men’s crimes or mental illnesses, the conditions inside these hyper-secure facilities – in which prisoners spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement – are the very definition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. According to the United Nations, they even qualify as torture. At other prisons, inmates are placed in solitary confinement for short stints in response to violent or aggressive behavior. ADX inmates are confined to their 7-by-12-foot (2-by-4-meter) cells 23 hours a day, according to The New York Times. They receive all their meals through a slot in the cell door, and their only glimpse of the outside world is through a thin slit of a window aimed at an empty sky.
This deprives prisoners of learning the layout of the prison and the location of their cells. No one has ever escaped from ADX Florence. The “bathroom” is a combination toilet/sink and a shower that turns on automatically three times a week. With good behavior, inmates earn the right to buy a small, black-and-white TV with a built-in radio, and to borrow books and magazines from the prison library. Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes a month to close family members. Prisoners are allowed five visits each month, under strict circumstances. The only time that inmates are allowed out of their cells is for an hour of exercise. Handcuffed and shackled at their feet, inmates are either led to an empty room with a single pull-up bar, or taken outside to the yard, where they are locked alone inside a caged pen. In another interview with The Boston Globe, Hood described the eerie quiet of walking through a modern prison facility where all of the inmates are locked down.
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We know that locking someone up in solitary confinement can cause all kinds of psychological problems within days, if not hours,” says Reiter. “With Supermax prisons, we’ve essentially been running a mass experiment on the effects of long-term solitary confinement for the last two decades. The effects of long-term solitary confinement range from depression and anxiety to full-on hallucinations and psychotic breaks. The New York Times tells the disturbing story of an ADX inmate named Jack Powers, jailed for robbery and sent to ADX after escaping from another prison. The isolation sent Powers spiraling into insanity. Travis Dusenbury in an interview with the Marshall Project. He spent 10 years at ADX for assaulting a guard at another prison, before being released. ADX has six different levels of security, and inmates can move from restrictive to less restrictive housing and possibly to other prisons. But even when released from solitary, the effects of isolation linger. In 1993, a doctor named Stuart Grassian described a condition called “SHU syndrome” (solitary confinement facilities are also called Security Housing Units) that’s characterized by paranoia, panic attacks, aggression and psychotic symptoms. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” and given the known psychological effects of solitary confinement, shouldn’t prisons like ADX be outlawed?
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