• United States



Security Inside the Supermax Prison

Nov 05, 200711 mins
Access Control

The Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado, is the ultimate prison. As the highest level of security in the US federal penitentiary system, it’s where some of the most dangerous offenders are sent – as well as those most needing insulation from other inmates. Ramsey Yousef, Ted Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui and Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano are there. Only two prisons like it have ever existed in the United States. Alcatraz, which closed its doors three decades before the current facility opened its own, is where the Supermax standard was born.

Bob Hood was Warden of the Colorado Supermax from 2002 to 2005; now he’s part of GE Security’s Homeland Protection group. Hood spoke with CSO Associate Staff Writer Katherine Walsh about the challenges of the job, how technology has changed prison security over the years, and what The Shawshank Redemption got wrong.

What is the difference between a Supermax and a traditional correctional facility?

A Supermax provides segregated long term housing for inmates who are classified as high security risk. A traditional correctional facility would hold nonviolent offenders or drug offenders on the low end.

Describe a day in the life of a prisoner.

They are locked up 22 to 24 hours a day, in a 7×12 foot cell. Psychologists, counselors and education staff make their rounds everyday; the prisoners don’t leave the cell for those visits. All three meals are placed in their cell. We use a sally port arrangement, where bars separate inmates from staff, and then a solid door and a security window. You can open the solid door and walk into an area where you are still separated from the inmate. They have a cement bed with bedding on it, a desk and stool, both made out of cement and a stainless steel sink. There is a shower in each individual cell, and that’s something that you wouldn’t see in a traditional facility. We have to do that for sanitary reasons, but more than that, it’s so we don’t have to transport inmates down the hallway. It’s a safety issue for staff. All their movements are under surveillance, day and night. The only reason an inmate would leave the cell is for a medical issue or visitation. However, visits in the Supermax are always no-contact.

How is it different from solitary confinement?

It’s similar, but the duration is different. Let’s say a fistfight that occurs in a prison; the inmate may be put in solitary confinement for that. But only for one to five days. The Supermax conditions are a classification decision, not a disciplinary decision.

How do you keep inmates from doing harm to other inmates or staff? Are they subject to different degrees of control, depending on why they are there?That’s the purpose of a Supermax. They are segregated, so as to avoid that. When we do move them, we close down the prison. We secure segments of the hallway through electronic gates. We use electronic belts, martin chains, leg irons and handcuffs on each inmate. And then again, there is the technology. There are hundreds of cameras and plenty of staff in the area, so it’s very difficult for one inmate to hurt another. Also, before they come out of the cell they are strip searched and their rooms are searched frequently. There are also frequent rotations between cell blocks. So just when they think they are getting familiar with their room or cell, we might move them. So basically, it’s never their cell. They are rotated at least once a week.

In terms of inmate treatment based on the types of crimes committed, that doesn’t really impact us much in a Supermax. A terrorist and a person that raped and killed an individual might both be in the Supermax. They are treated in a similar manner unless the attorney general applies special administrative measures.

What would those be?

It’s a prescription mostly provided to terrorists, and it would be something like a 30 day restriction on a newspaper. So they would receive a USA Today 30 days late. They would have access to TV, but no newsworthy TV like CNN. Their letters undergo greater scrutiny. Their phone calls are limited to 15 minutes per month, whereas other inmates might have a couple more. All inmates’ phone conversations are monitored and transcribed.

What does TV get wrong about Supermax portrayal? What’s the most flagrant misrepresentation you’ve seen?

One of the misnomers about the Supermax is that we are so much different that a traditional facility. We are different in the sense that we have more inmates, we utilize a higher staffing level and our policies are more restrictive. But really, we are just another microcosm of what every warden does. Wardens at camps (low security), medium security, or penitentiaries (high security) use similar technologies. We all use drug and bomb detection equipment, microwave technologies, hundreds of cameras and infrared lighting. Even though we might take it to a higher level, our needs are very similar to the needs of every warden out there.

In terms of misrepresentation, when I look at The Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz, the characterization of brutal and unprofessional staff and the adversarial relationship that is shown between the inmates and the guards amazes me. I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I’m not saying that doesn’t exist out there, but I think it’s a minority of the situations. My experience has been this: most inmates don’t like being in prison. We understand that, but they know we need to be there, we know we have a job to do, and we have a respectful relationship. I’ve had inmates curse and threaten me, but I’ve never been assaulted.

There have been six wardens in 13 years. What type of emotional limit does this job have? Do you burn out?Six wardens isn’t atypical. The Supermax is the Harvard of our system. You won’t go there as your first wardenship or even your second. And then there is the age requirement: You must retire in federal law enforcement at the age of 57. So by the time you become a warden in a Supermax, it’s pretty much your last stop. At this facility, the first warden retired. The next three moved onto private prisons. I think they would have stayed with the bureau, but they were getting close to the 57 mark. So people either leave because of retirement, promotion, or because of another job they want to start grabbing before they get to old to be able to do it. In my opinion, people don’t leave because of burnout. That’s another misnomer. It’s gratifying work and I think we all handle burnout differently. When I walked into work at the Supermax, I looked for the positive in even he worse parts of our system. That’s what got me through the day.How did that help you? Did you find it difficult to separate your personal life bias from your profession?

I think most people in corrections find that difficult. But my job is to get closer to these inmates and at the same time, make sure my staff goes home every day to their families. So when I go in there I want the place to hum, Early in my career I think I had more potential for burnout. Part of that is because back in the early days we didn’t have the technology we have today. We were working with 3,000 inmates, a handful of officers and we were truly dependant on archaic methods. But technology has helped improve things and make the job easier over the last 30 years.

Is there one inmate who you consider to be the most interesting, dangerous or intimidating?

They are all interesting in my opinion, and not necessarily all dangerous. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who killed 19 people, come to mind. The one that jumps out though is Ramsey Yousef (the terrorist behind the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993). Here’s a guy doing life plus 240 years. He’s the real deal. But he studies his Koran every day and prays with complete discipline and total respect. Sometimes I look at these guys, and while I don’t condone what they do, I am fascinated by them. Yousef is sitting in a Supermax for life, yet he has more discipline and is more content with the world than many people I see walking around on a daily basis.

What’s it like to see the human side of these inmates? What’s the hardest part?

Well, that’s what made that job interesting for so many years. When you think about the tragedies at the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City, or any of these situations, it’s emotionally draining. I’ve walked around the memorials at Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center; I’ve listened to people having conversations about these horrible acts. But when I walk into work, I need to put that to the side. I have to remove the thought of that terrible act and realize I’m the warden at a prison and I have another hat to wear. Because if I bring that inside, I’m adding more to the punishment and the inmate. It has to be done that way, because if you come in there with your own agenda, you’re not being effective. And my job is to keep that person alive, safe and out of harms way from other inmates. I have to make sure the individual responsible for those acts, who I’m now responsible for, is getting clean clothes, proper sanitation and medication. And that’s difficult. I believe most people couldn’t do it.

What was your interaction with inmates like Yousef and Reid like on a daily basis? What were the conversations like?

During my rounds, part of my job was to touch base with every inmate and staff member. If the inmate had a visit, I’d ask them about the visit. If they received some mail, I’d ask them if they’d gotten any pictures. There’s not an inmate out there that wouldn’t show me a picture of their family member, or tell me about how they are working on their GED, even though they might not ever get out of prison. They tell me what is important to their world. Somehow that’s what keeps them going. When they have the bad day where they feel like hurting themselves or hurting others, destroying their room, you almost have to be able to go back there and talk to them, play referee.

Which is more important in terms of security: razor wire or smart cameras? That’s an interesting question. It’s like asking me what is more important, handcuffs or bullets. They are both important, but it depends on where you are using them. In terms of perimeter security, you’d rather have razor wire to stop an inmate from leaving. In the hallways, cameras make more sense. So it depends on location and how you are using the technology. I don’t think one outdates the other. Smart cameras are highly effective, but you need the combination. It’s similar to the situation with gun towers. Even as we start looking at newer technologies like electrified fences and smart cameras to replace those, I still want the eyes and ears of the officers. In terms of preventing external threat, we want the human element to be there. What lessons can CSOs learn from the technology implementations and security methods at the Supermax? There are lessons for sure. There is a misnomer that Supermaxes can purchase things that others might not be able to. It comes down to the effective use of the technology. Whether I have 300 cameras at a Supermax or 50 at a company, there is a way to utilize them properly. Regardless of budget, we need to educate people on how to use these technologies. Even if you can’t afford four machines to detect explosives and drugs, or 300 cameras, there are smart ways to use such equipment in smaller capacities.

Reach Associate Staff Writer Katherine Walsh at