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Inside The Country's Most Notorious Prison: The ADX Supermax

The entrance to the ADX Supermax in Florence, Colorado. After you check in here, it is the last time you are above ground (photo from Wikipedia).

The entrance to the ADX Supermax in Florence, Colorado. After you check in here, it is the last time you are above ground (photo from Wikipedia).

About two hours south of Denver, the country’s highest security prison sits amongst the mountains in the beautiful town of Florence, Colorado. I have been inside of it.

A few years ago, I met with an inmate there for an evaluation. I was in a small room (imagine the size of the average American powder room, and then take a third of that room away). I was locked in the room alone, sitting on a stool bolted to the floor. There was a narrow concrete slab in front of me that I could use as a desk. A thick glass panel separated me from an identical room on the other side, where sat a man whose arms were shackled to his waist and who was wearing leg irons. He could only lift his arms about a foot above his waist, but he had received a special treat: he was outside of his cell his hands were cuffed in front of his body today, not behind his back. He needed to fill out some paperwork. It turns out he couldn’t write because of his limited mobility, so I read him the paperwork and recorded his answers. I’m not sure I would have been comfortable giving him something as stabby as a pen, anyway.

Most people do not make it past this room. You first check in at a gate close to the road, and you don’t get past that gate unless you pass a background check and you have been approved. Then you drive for a surprisingly long time, past several other federal prisons, before you get to the Supermax. You can’t see any of the prison from the road, but you get the sense that they can see you. I was told not to take any pictures with my phone. If I did, I’d likely never see it again. You walk into a small building, check in at another gate, go through a search procedure, and then head down a long flight of stairs. The prison is completely underground—this is the last time you will not be covered by meters of dirt.

I won’t describe anything more about what the prison is like on the inside, but I did make it past that visitation room. It took a court order, but I was reluctantly granted a full tour of the prison. All of the guards were wearing kevlar vests. They didn’t give me one.

I’ve been in 37 different jails and prisons, and I can say without exaggeration that this was the most intensely locked down facility I have ever seen. It was bright, quiet, spotless, and completely controlled. No one laughed. Making eye contact felt threatening.

Because it is rumored that El Chapo will be sent to the Supermax, 9News did a story on it recently. Here is the link, with video from inside the prison and commentary from me:

Max Wachtel