It looks like my old high school. That was my first thought when I drove through the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colo. and pulled up to Supermax.
They don't call it Supermax, of course, at least not on the signs. It is the United States Penitentiary - Administrative Maximum. But everyone uses the nicknames. ADX. Supermax. The Alcatraz of the Rockies. That last phrase is the one you find on the hoodies and T-shirts for sale in a case just past the visitor's entrance - all proceeds going to an employees organization.
There is a certain sort of architecture you see in the suburbs and exurbs of America, modernist brutalism, lots of brick on the outside, poured concrete on the inside and no windows that began in the 70's and reached its perfection in the 1990's. Prisons and public schools seemed to share an affinity for the style, which is heavy on the sensory deprivation.
I remembered how much I hated walking into school and the hours of windowless fluorescent lighting as I walked into Supermax. It had taken months to get here and as claustrophobic as the experience was going to be, that was in a sense precisely the point.
We had spent months researching our story about life behind these walls. The Bureau of Prisons is famously tight-fisted with information, hence the 30-plus Freedom on Information Act requests for Supermax records. They did not want us here and a spokeswoman had even tried to dissuade us early on from doing the story by telling us that it was perhaps the least interesting of federal prisons because, in her words, nothing much happened there.
Right. A prison that houses the Unabomber; the shoe-bomber; one of the Oklahoma City bombers; some of the al Qaeda embassy bombers; most of the first World Trade Center bombers; the Olympic Park bomber, the man who wanted to be one of the 9/11 hijackers; an FBI agent turned Soviet spy; the so-called American Taliban; and the leaders of the notorious Aryan Brotherhood prison gang is somehow boring?
If they ever let us in with cameras, we could shoot enough interviews to fill an entire season of 60 Minutes.
So here we were. We'd done our shooting outside the prison, hiking up to the fence line and seeing the mirrored glass of the gun towers. We'd even heard what sounded like a rock band playing from at the neighboring U.S. Penitentiary (which is a high-security facility itself).
The BOP decided to let us in, but only with other invited journalists, and there was no way we were going to be allowed to bring cameras. That was after pointing out to them they already allowed VIP tours and even visits by graduate students.
They chose 9/11 for our visit, which somehow seemed appropriate. Not just because of the al Qaeda members who were here. Not just because we had already interviewed officers at the prison who told us how the inmates cheered when they got news of the attacks. But also because the leader of the first World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef, is the nephew of the man who masterminded 9/11 and finished the attack that Yousef started back in 1993.
There was coffee and Danish and fresh fruit accompanied by a lecture from the current warden, Ron Wiley, in a surprisingly nice, paneled conference room with plasma televisions on the wall.
During Wiley's remarks before and after the tour, we didn't get any information that we had not already dug up on our own -- in fact, there was much less. There were a few pages of handouts that were short on statistics and a typed agenda which made it clear that we were going nowhere near the most interesting parts of the prison.