No Room FOR ERROR
Theodore Kaczynski. Eric Robert Rudolph. Ramzi Yousef. These notorious criminals are locked up at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., and were among the people former warden Bob Hood worked beside every day for three years.
The U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX), or Supermax facility, houses the most dangerous, escape-prone inmates in the prison system. The self-contained Supermax holds 500 beds for inmates who are called “the worst of the worst.” Among them are more than 40 terrorists.
Hood, who was a warden at four other prisons before joining the Supermax, worked at the facility from 2002-2005. His previous experience hardly prepared him for day-to-day life as a Supermax warden. “The population [of inmates] is different,” Hood explains. “Therefore, the facility has to echo that population.”
Today Bob Hood is a member of the GE Security Homeland Protection Team. In an interview, he reflected on his experience at one of the nation’s most secure facilities.
The Supermax prison is surrounded by 12-ft. double fences with razor wire and microwave systems and has six gun towers which, Hood says, are used more than an average penitentiary because they respond to external threats as well as internal threats. The facility is also under continuous watch by hundreds of cameras.
The life of a Supermax prisoner is tightly restricted and monitored. For 22-23 hours a day, the inmate is brought three meals to be consumed in his 12×7-ft. cell that has a cement bed with bedding, an immovable cement desk and stool, a stainless steel sink and basin, a black-and-white television that shows closed-circuit classes and religious services and a 4-in.-wide window. Each cell also has its own shower and commode for sanitation and to limit the amount of time a prisoner needs to leave his cell.
Hood would make rounds each day to touch base with each inmate. He says that prisoners keep busy in their cells — involved in religious study, work or education — and are frequently visited by psychologists, counselors and education staff. If a prisoner leaves his cell for medical reasons, recreation or visitation, a minimum of three staff members are required for the escort. The prison closes down, and segments of the hallway are secured through electronic gates. The inmate may be shackled and cuffed by leg irons and chains, as well as an electrified belt in some situations.
Hood says the Supermax was built with the goal of keeping staff risk levels as low as possible. Taking a look at other high-security facilities such as Alcatraz (San Francisc) and Marion (Ill.), gave prison staff, including Hood, a look at what security systems worked — and what didn’t. “At the Marion facility, they learned from their mistakes and about the sophistication of inmates. One time, two officers were killed on the same day, and part of the reason was that the inmates had total access to the staff,” Hood says. “Of course they had cameras, but the cells only had bars separating the inmate from the staff, so inmates created spears to shoot out and kill people in the hall.”
The cell door system for the Florence Supermax was upgraded to allow for a 5-6-foot distance between the officer and the inmate. Bulletproof glass allows visibility into the cell; however, if an officer wants to talk to an inmate, he can slide an exterior door — and still be behind bars.
Along with considering security in the building design, standard procedures are integrated with technology based on previous mistakes, thus giving staff an easier, more extensive ability to secure the area. They currently use trace technology to determine if certain substances contain narcotics or explosives. They operate night vision cameras and electronic doors. “All these things help officers go home everyday,” Hood says. “Technology helps us use what we didn’t use in the past. It’s down to a science in terms of being able to move people in a safe manner.”
The Supermax’s security is not unlike most local jails, Hood says, but he admits the use of technology in prisons is progressive, allowing them to use existing technology, yet acknowledge the need to change or upgrade. Furthermore, the prison system needs standardization across all prisons. “When I send an individual out of the prison to go to a local jail for court, I am proactive in determining that he does not have drugs in his system before he leaves. If he is then turned around after getting to the jail because they don’t have the technology to prove that there aren’t any drugs on him, it brings us back to square one,” Hood says.
Hood emphasizes that these prisoners have no opportunity to be released on good behavior — they will harm someone if they get the chance. “The Supermax is not a normal setting; it’s a place not designed for much humanity. These people don’t have much to lose. But, through technology, we can make the environment less intrusive.”
One element of making the environment feel less intrusive is — ironically — making the prisoners feel safe. Hood remembers when Richard Reid, also known as the “Shoe Bomber,” was transferred to the facility.
Reid went through the standard arrival procedure, which includes being secured with martin chains, handcuffs and leg irons, and stepping off of a bus that is surrounded by staff. During the procedure, cameras took constant pictures as he walked off the bus and into his cell. It was all documented for staff training purposes and future reference.
Screens all over the prison show staff these arrivals each day. “It is a very litigious world, and [the Supermax] is looked at as an icon of security for the United States. By videotaping everything, it gives my staff the knowledge that they have all inmate documentation from the second they got there.”
After documenting the arrival, the inmate is transferred to his cell, is assessed medically and psychologically and is put in a counseling setting to determine unknown threats.
Hood says once Reid and others went through that procedure, Hood trusted his staff to do their jobs correctly so he could come in and bring the human element — letting Reid know that he is safe. “I want him in the least restrictive environment. I want to work with him. We need to show him respect, so he can work with us and make the best of a bad situation.”
The human element and respecting the inmates plays a large part in everyday security at the Supermax, Hood says, stating that correctional officers are more important than technology. “There is a balance. There is always going to be a human element. Humans can make a summary judgment and use intelligence to make decisions,” Hood says.
Although the movies typically depict an unprofessional, brutal staff, that’s not how he ran things at the Supermax. “The inmate’s punishment is between the inmate and the judge. Our staff members, including the wardens, read the background of the inmate, his upbringing and criminal history — and then put that to the side,” Hood says. “It’s not that we condone it or commend them, but we have to bring humanity into a place that is not designed for it.”
While the staff knows how the prison is run, Hood says the public is still unaware. “The public picks up ideas from movies and makes it harder for staff recruitment. In corrections, if we want technology, we have to show taxpayers that we are going to utilize their funds to make a place safer and the community safer too. But it’s harder to gain public trust nowadays.”
Hood says this public trust issue is motivating prison administrators to change with the times. “They are thinking outside the box and enhancing traditional security with technology. They know they can’t just depend on dogs for detection; they can’t just rely on razor wire for perimeter security. It’s a new day, and new issues are occurring that you didn’t have before.”
Such issues — combined with the sophistication of inmates — require the staff to use “creative” ideas for security within the prison. Hood says, depending on the U.S. Attorney General’s given “prescription” for a given inmate, he may be able to use the prison library. After a prisoner uses the library, the employees must scour each page of returned books to make sure there are no messages or codes in the book as an intelligence-gathering procedure. Another prescription that some inmates have is access to newspapers — but it must be delayed by 30 days, and the prison has the authority to cut out security-related articles, Hood says, citing that some inmates will “take advantage of the news.”
Other parts of the prison use more familiar technology, for example, the more secure areas are simply enhanced with a larger number of cameras. Another example is that if a person is regulated as so dangerous that they cannot socialize with others, that inmate will be placed in a cage during recreation time so they cannot connect physically with other inmates. “For recreation time, we use audio and video surveillance on those inmates. Even when inmates are just getting some sunshine, that can be the opportunity to find where they are coming from and who their friends are,” Hood says.
It’s hard to take much away to punish prisoners for bad behavior in a Supermax, but one thing is visitation rights.
Hood says these visits are what keep most prisoners going — their link to reality — and he treated their visitation rights with dignity, while not forgetting the sophistication of the inmates.
Depending on the inmate’s prescription, visits may be allowed, letting family members see the inmates through non-contact, bulletproof glass. They speak on phones and the conversation is recorded and monitored.
However, Hood realizes that inmates — like the staff and the rest of the world — have bad days. And because of the environment the inmate is in, if a visitor is delayed, the inmate may not have a place to vent his anger. So Hood says they use technology to allow safe interaction in times of duress.
If an inmate’s family member dies, he is not allowed to leave for a funeral, but there is a small loophole. “Some people can ask to videotape the funeral process, and have it sent to prison,” Hood says, adding that the videotape is checked for contraband and when the inmate is given personal time with the tape, they undergo the same restrictions as in a normal transport situation. “You balance out what you would want to occur if you had a death in the family with what you have to do in Supermax,” Hood says.
Mood at the Supermax is a big factor for those who are part of the prison’s security staff. The newer the staff, the more difficult it is to work around “the most dangerous people in the world,” Hood says. He had to bite his tongue sometimes, even as he took his daily routine as an opportunity to engage with the inmates. “My average day was to go in and open every single door, ask them about new photos or how their weekend was,” he says. “When I walked in the office every day, I would look at the American flag and change from Bob Hood from the street and into Bob Hood the warden.”
Today, at Hood’s position with GE Security, he is using his knowledge as a national security specialist to go within law enforcement facilities and combine their thoughts with GE’s technology. “It’s about educating the field and bringing it to GE’s expertise and vice versa,” he says.
Hood says this brings more of a partnership to the industry because he can see problems facilities are having and use his experience to present executive feedback sessions. “I know the inmate perspective from inmates themselves. I give [law enforcement] feedback of trends occurring in other systems,” he says. “It is our objective to make it a safer world. It takes imagination and creativity to not just stick with the same products.”
As far as the future of the Supermax and other high-security prisons, Hood and other wardens say it’s not just about putting in more cameras. “The challenges are big turnover in staff, mindset and the need for more standardization. The sky is the limit on types of equipment we can use. But we need a balance for economic and humanity reasons.”
Maryland Prison Controls Inmates With High-Tech Protection
North Branch Correctional Institution, a state-of-the-art maximum-security prison in Western Maryland, has been opening in phases since 2003 and will double in size to hold up to 1,400 inmates when two more housing units open this year. Holding the state’s most violent and disruptive criminals, the prison has been redesigned to keep them under control.
The $171 million high-tech facility is taking inmates from aging facilities and features the latest in correctional security devices as well as a “special-management unit” where the most incorrigible offenders spend weeks in what is better known to the public as solitary confinement.
“This is the end of the line here,” says Warden John A. Rowley, prison manager, as reported by The Baltimore Sun. “Our mission is to deal with the most problematic inmates. We have a great deal of control.”
The latest in correctional security devices include nearly 500 digital video cameras that monitor inmate-accessible areas. Electronic sensors detect any suspicious movement and display the location on control-tower computer screens, and tear gas ducts in the walls are operational for correctional officers should a fight erupt in the dining hall or housing corridor.
To fully enclose prisoners, each cell is made of super-strength concrete poured into casting molds, leaving no seams or cracks that could be gouged out to provide hiding places for weapons or drugs. The walls of the 60-sq. ft. cell are also covered with graffiti-resistant epoxy paint.
Correctional officers have control of the cells’ water flow to each stainless-steel sink and toilet, encouraged for use to prevent vandalism. Just a button over is a way to activate speakers to talk to a prisoner in his cell.
The Baltimore Sun spoke with David N. Bezanson, an assistant corrections secretary who oversees prison construction projects. He said that the new prison is “meant to last 60 years or more.”
Out of the two new units at North Branch is one special for dangerous inmates such as active gang members and violent prisoners with a reputation for causing disruptions. These inmates are confined largely to their cells while they go through a 13-month “quality of life” program. Its purpose is to get them to change their way of thinking.
When transported anywhere in the prison, inmates are accompanied by staff and bound by handcuffs and leg shackles at all times. Individual cages resembling barred telephone booths are used during group education and counseling sessions.
These special-management unit inmates are allowed almost no privileges during their first few weeks. They can’t buy anything from the commissary; they are allowed only one day of recreation and two showers per week; and they are not permitted outside visitors. They don’t have the privilege of TV, radio, video games or phone calls.
Inmates who advance in the 13-month program, which offers anger-management classes and other self-improvement exercises, see a gradual ease in restrictions. They earn these privileges by demonstrating self-control and improving their behavior, James K. Holwager, the prison’s chief psychologist, told The Baltimore Sun.
“It is pretty bleak … but it is for the safety of everyone,” Holwager says.