Supermax: A Clean Version Of Hell

60 Minutes' Scott Pelley Reports On Supermax Prison And Its Inmates

This story was first published on Oct. 14, 2007. It was updated on June 19, 2009.

The president says he wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, early next year. But it's an open question where those prisoners would go. One possibility is a secretive installation in Colorado where more than 40 terrorists are already locked away. The government doesn't say much about this place called the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, also known as "Supermax." The public had never seen the operation inside until 60 Minutes broadcast this story in 2007.

Since President Obama mentioned Supermax in a speech about Guantanamo, we wanted to take you there again. It's a sort of a 21st century Alcatraz, where convicted al Qaeda terrorists are force-fed and some guards worry about their own safety.

Supermax is the place America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most - a place former warden Robert Hood described as a clean version of hell.

"I don't know what hell is, but I do know the assumption would be, for a free person, it's pretty close to it," Hood tells Pelley.

60 Minutes' cameras could only get near the perimeter of the prison. The ADX lies low and sprawling by the foothills of the Rockies, 100 miles south of Denver. There have been six wardens since it opened in 1994, but this is the first time one of them has described his experiences inside. Robert Hood ran the ADX from 2002 to 2005, at the end of 20 years in the Bureau of Prisons.

"When the Supermax job came up, you were excited about taking it. Why?" Pelley asks Hood.

"In our system, there's 114 prisons. And there's only one Supermax. It's like the Harvard of the system," Hood explains.

Except that the ivory towers of Harvard may be easier to get into. Supermax holds fewer than 500 prisoners. Most are at the facility because they're too violent to be anywhere else. But this is also where America keeps convicted terrorists, more than 40 of them.

"You think the guard towers are watching us?" Pelley asks Hood, while standing not far from the perimeter of the ADX.

"I know they're watching us," Hood says.

But the Bureau of Prisons doesn't want us watching them. The general public has never seen Supermax in operation, but 60 Minutes found rare, if poor quality, pictures in the files of a court case. The video, shot by prison staff, shows a new inmate, Lawrence Klaker, a member of a prison gang being brought in through the underground garage.

Read producer Henry Schuster's observations from an off-camera tour of Supermax.

Most prisoners spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, every minute, every meal. The window in their cell is blocked so they can't see the mountains. Inmates can watch a 12" black and white television or read books to pass the time. And if they behave, they may get limited exercise in a one-man recreation pen.

This was the life terrorist Richard Reid saw when he was brought into Supermax.

"We're escorting him down and his eyes are getting bigger and bigger. He's realizing, 'I'm in trouble,'" Hood says of Reid's arrival.

Shortly after 9/11, it was Reid who tried to blow up an airliner with a bomb in his shoe.

Hood says Reid didn't impress him. Asked if he thought Reid was a leader or a follower, Hood tells Pelley, "Definitely, in my opinion, a follower. I think he would jump off the top of the Empire State Building, if he thought it was for the right cause."

60 Minutes learned that Reid is in a special wing for terrorists called "H-unit." Others include Zacarias Moussaoui, who wanted to be one of the 9/11 hijackers, and Wadih El Hage, Osama bin Laden's former private secretary. Another terrorist in Supermax is Ramzi Yousef, the leader of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.

What did Hood make of Yousef?

"The most interesting inmate in my career," Hood says. "I was surprised that he was extremely respectful. Prayed every, almost on the hour."

Yousef has lived in the ADX for 11 years, sacrificing to live by his own code. "Something as simple as recreating, he would have to be strip searched to go recreate. He chose not to do that because of his belief that it would be inappropriate for us to show his body, or see his body," Hood says.

"And so he stays in the cell?" Pelley asks.

"Never been out, to my knowledge," Hood says.

Eight years after Yousef's World Trade Center attack came 9/11, and the inmates saw it on the TVs in their cells.

"We had a lot of 'em jump up and down. You know, scream and yell and clap and they were very excited," remembers corrections officer Barbara Batulis, who spoke to 60 Minutes as head of the officer's union. She's the only current Supermax employee who would sit down for an interview.

"I'm curious about the Islamist extremists, the terrorists in the prison. As a group, what are they like? How do they behave?" Pelley asks.

"A lot of them behave self-righteously very needy. But me being a female I think that's part of me dealing with them also," Batulis says,

Asked what she means by "needy," Batulis tells Pelley, "They want more than what they have coming."

"They want extra toilet paper or extra paper, writing paper, or extra envelopes. And if you can't give 'em, they want to see a supervisor right then and there. And that doesn't always happen," she says.