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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Supermax Opens for Rare Tour

FLORENCE — There are many things that have been written about Supermax that have irritated Ron Wiley since the maximum security prison first opened in 1994. But, perhaps one thing in particular gets under his skin.

“Whenever you read an article, the first paragraph will go something like this: Zacarias Moussaoui, Ramzi Yousef, Terry Nichols, Ted Kacyznski…,” Wiley said. “You could be talking about baby diapers, and that paragraph will jump out.”

Though none of the reporters Wiley was speaking with Tuesday during a rare media tour of Supermax were asking questions related to his playful example, his point that news coverage of the federal prison that he serves as warden in flirts with sensationalism was made clear.

Wiley reminded reporters that infamous nicknames, such as “The Unabomber,” “The American Taliban,” “The Shoe Bomber,” and others make up a small percentage of those housed at the facility.

“The example I use for these inmates is like a big man for the NBA,” he said. “They come along every 10 years. That’s the smallest part of the population here, and those are the ones you (the press) key on.”

Yet, on Tuesday, Sept. 11 — the six year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks — it was difficult for reporters not to focus on names like Moussaoui. Nor were issues ignored related to concerns by critics of Wiley and officials of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who claim the safety of correctional officers — those who interact daily with the names Wiley mentioned, as well as hundreds of other inmates — is being compromised because of understaffing at the facility.

Tuesday’s organized media tour — one that included representatives from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Fox News, CBS and the network’s “60 Minutes,” as well as the Daily Record and the Pueblo Chieftain — was the first of its kind since the prison opened.

Though Bureau officials who flanked Wiley during the tour said the Sept. 11 date was a coincidence, recent events certainly played a role in prompting the tour.

“There has been a lot of interest in the ADX,” said Judith Simon Garrett, deputy assistant director for information, policy and public affairs division, central office of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “We were getting increasingly high numbers of media requests. It was doing us more harm than good to say, ‘No.’”

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, along with Colorado U.S. senators Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard, toured Supermax in February on the heels of an October 2006 Justice Department report that indicated security lapses in inmate communication monitoring. Additionally, a federal arbitrator agreed with union officials who have long expressed their safety concerns of the facility.

Most recently, leaders of the Council of Prison Locals held a late August press conference slamming the Bureau for staffing numbers that they say have reached “dangerously low” levels.

Wiley was not shy Tuesday in stating his dissent.

“We run a safe and secure institution, and we’re very comfortable with the staffing levels,” Wiley said. “To think otherwise is actually to insult me.”

Wiley, who became warden in 2005, said union officials are off base in claiming that the facility is staffed at only 75 percent.

“Labor will always say, ‘We want more,’” Wiley said. “That’s the nature of labor. That’s simplistic to me.”

Wiley took issue with comments made by some reporters who felt his Swiss-watch like tour direction did not fully allow them the opportunity to do the very thing Wiley and Bureau officials set out to do Tuesday: allow access and provide information in order to quell concerns of the secretive federal prison.

“Today is about education,” said Wiley. “And, dispelling what we’ve heard.”

Inmate Management

Dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” — a term embraced by the Bureau and even marketed through clothing sold inside the facility’s lobby — Supermax houses 478 inmates and “includes inmates who are assaultive or seriously disruptive, those with terrorist links, and those who are prone to escape,” according to literature provided by prison officials.

The facility is part of Federal Correctional Complexes in Florence. Along with Supermax, the U.S. Penitentiary, Federal Correctional Institution, and Federal Prison Camp, make up 640 acres of federal land.

The Bureau, under the supervision of the Department of Justice, is FCC’s governmental body.

Tuesday’s tour consisted mainly of the general population and “step-down” units of Supermax. Inmates typically begin their stay in the general population and gradually move toward less-restrictive units — ultimately, they can be transferred to high security USP or other federal institutions.

Inmates’ privileges vary according to the length of time they’ve been there, as well as behavior. Some receive up to three telephone calls monthly and three hours of recreation time each day, which can be spent outdoors.

One of those inmates, 38-year-old Mark Ford, said he spends his recreational time “not trying to do too much.”

“I’m hanging in there,” he said while exercising with the help of a dip bar.

Ford did not discuss what led to his incarceration.

“I try to forget about that and not dwell on the past,” he said.

The tour did not consist of the facility’s control unit, which “houses the most dangerous and disruptive inmates within the federal prison system.” These inmates receive just one hour of time outside their cells daily with their only communication inside the facility being with correctional officers.

Wiley said there is no such thing as a “bombers’ row” for notorious terrorists. In fact, inmates who may have been co-conspirators are separated inside the facility’s control unit.

Health services are available to all inmates. However, of the five physician positions at the facility, only two are staffed. And, of the 11 physician assistant positions, just eight are currently staffed.

However, when asked if any inmates have ever failed to receive requested medical attention, Capt. Rod Bauer of the health services unit said, “Not that I’m aware of, and I’ve been here 13 years.”

Most inmates are able to access periodicals from the prison library. GED and ESL programs are also available, as well as psychology and religious services. Many inmates also have cable television inside their cells.

Critics Weigh In

Wiley and other prison officials say the facility is staffed at “almost 90 percent.” They say that number is good enough to stay operational without safety concerns.

“No one should think that at 90 percent we can’t operate our facility safely and securely,” Garrett said.

But, critics point to a union count of 180 correctional officers covering 230 shifts.

“I don’t know where their numbers come from,” said Barbara Batulis, Local 1302 president, in a phone interview following the tour. “The numbers don’t lie. We are continually losing staff.”

Pueblo West Democratic Rep. Buffie McFadyen, a longtime prison safety advocate, said while she appreciates the Bureau allowing media access, she too disagrees with prison officials’ statements.

“There is no question there is a shortage of staff,” she said. “I don’t have a dog in this fight except to maintain prison safety.”

The issue of perimeter fencing also was addressed by Wiley, who said each of the FCC facilities has fencing and that any additional fencing around the complex would be unnecessary.

“A $20 million fence would do nothing but spend $20 million of the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.

Wiley also said “there’s no way in heck” he would compromise the safety of correctional officers.

“I love what I do,” he said. “When my professionalism is degraded or not fully understood, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

McFadyen said she has met with Wiley and other Bureau officials and “has heard the same script each time.”

“Its disappointing, and it makes my job a lot harder,” she said. “I’m worried someone is going to get killed at this correctional facility.

“This is not a cry wolf story, this is serious,” McFadyen said

Canon City Daily Record


TDA said...

Of course the warden will defend the situation. He would be held accountable for speaking out against it. He will defend the budget shortfalls until somebody gets hurts, then shift the blame elsewhere, most likely at line staff. The union helped bring this matter to the public with the steadfast support and leadership of Rep. Buffie McFayden. It is not over by any means.

Anonymous said...

A few miles away a new supermax for Colorado's most violent criminals is being built. Unfortunately, it is being built on the backs of Colorado's grandchildren...borrowing on their incomes for political payoffs. The prison, by DOC's own statistics is not needed. Every day this agency wastes taxpayor money and mis-classifies inmates. They put non-violent drug addicts into supermax instead of giving them drug treatment. There is no need for a new supermax, except to payoff the prison industrial complex in Colorado.