My Morning At Supermax

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and
I spent this 9-11 anniversary in the most unlikely of places—the so-called "Supermax" federal penitentiary complex in Florence, Colorado. I was part of a small group of journalists who were finally allowed by the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department to tour for about 100 minutes a few areas of a 640-acre compound that houses approximately 3,200 prisoners, including some of the best known and most notorious of our time.

No, we did not see Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols or the so-called "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid or the so-called "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski or the so-called "20th Hijacker" Zacarious Moussaoui. We did not see any dank underground cells or other evidence that the men in the "Administrative Maximum Security" portion of the prison are simply left to rot in their cells. But we didn't see a shiny happy place either—it is prison, after all, and it happens to house inmates who for one reason or another were kicked out of their "regular" penitentiaries.

We saw an eerily-quiet, sterile portion of the facility, a place where almost every single inmate was polite, if not particularly talkative, and where federal officials could best show us the vast majority of prisoners at this ADX house aren't big-named convicts or high-profile terrorists—and that they all have a chance to "rehabilitate" themselves enough to warrant being placed back in a prison population somewhere. We saw what they wanted us to see, and only that, in an environment of control that extended to when we were allowed to sit down inside the "briefing room."

We saw cement desks and bed frames and stainless steel toilets and sinks. We saw cages—straight out of the circus—where inmates who are going along with the warden's "program" are allowed to "recreate" outside for about 10 hours a week. We saw that the windows in the cells are only a few inches wide and all look inward toward the other windows of other cells. No one has a view of the beautiful Rocky Mountains which surround the facility in the southern portion of Colorado.

We were allowed to tour—the first ever formal media visit we were told—to help prison officials "destroy" some of those public "myths" and many others that have cropped up about the prison since the most-sensitive portion of the place opened in 1994. "Today is about education," said ADX Warden Ron Wiley, who looks like a cross between Texas Rangers' manager Ron Washington and comedian Eddie Murphy. "Ninety percent of the ADX mission is inmates taken out of other institutions," he said, and the "20 or 30 inmates" who we would consider high-profile are "not my major mission."

Warden Wiley told us that he speaks personally with every single inmate in his facility at least once a week. So what does Terry Nichols talk about? What does the Unabomber have to say? All Wiley would tell us is that their requests are more practical than philosophical in nature. The high-profile prisoners, he said, are actually among the best behaved in the facility. "It is super quiet" where they are confined, he said, "and they exhibit a lot of discipline and respect for authority."

They'll ask about when their Special Administrative Measures (the extra security precautions imposed by the Justice Department) are going to be reviewed, Wiley said, or if they can get a certain kind of magazine. Will these people ever be able to satisfy the misty "test" imposed by the Bureau of Prisons in determining whether a Supermax prisoner is worthy of going into the general prison population? They are all eligible, Wiley said proudly, before immediately conceding that some of the truly high-profile convicts probably would never stay alive and well in a general population because of the nature of their crimes.

So don't look for Nichols in Leavenworth or Kaczynski in Marion anytime soon. And don't look upon "Supermax" as this particularly foreboding or sinister place. It may be a high-tech, super-secure prison but it is still a prison, where men will live and die in 68-square-foot cells. And despite Warden Wiley's central-casting demeanor and attitude, it is still a place that can generate the occasional doubt of drama. When we were listening to one prison official drone on about yoga I suddenly saw two corrections officers race down the hallway past our window and then saw two others, who were part of our tour, immediately bolt us into the room.

Lockdown? No, just a false alarm.