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When officials at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons set out to build a supermax penitentiary capable of holding the most dangerous inmates in the federal system, they didn't mess around. Opened in 1994 at a cost of $60 million, the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum outside of Florence, Colorado, better known as ADX, is the last word in high-tech, high-security confinement.
With its bunker-like design, 1,400 electronic doors, 180 video cameras and a regimen that keeps some prisoners in lockdown for an average of 22 hours a day, ADX has become the repository for what BOP leadership likes to call "the worst of the worst," including inmates Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Ramzi Yousef, who engineered the World Trade Center bombing. Timothy McVeigh spent time there before being shipped to the federal death row in Indiana to await execution.
As befits such an elite clientele, prisoner movement, mail and communication with the outside world are all severely restricted.
Previous Westword article|
"The Killing Floor"
Yet there are two factors the BOP didn't consider when it erected the ultimate hoosegow: disgruntled employees and the Internet. The two have proven to be a powerful combination, providing a rare glimpse into labor unrest and troubled operations at the toughest, most secretive prison in the country.
For more than a year, members of Local 1302 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents a majority of corrections officers at ADX, have been vigorously challenging numerous policies and decisions of the new warden, Michael Pugh. The bitter dispute has been a frequent topic of discussion on the local's Web site, www. webpan.com/adx1302, and has rapidly expanded to encompass a wide range of concerns -- everything from a battle of wills over the prison's image and nickname, "Alcatraz of the Rockies," to allegations of union-busting, misuse of public funds, punitive transfers, security violations and other claims of "willful misconduct" that may have played a role in an inmate suicide.
The Web site has stirred considerable consternation within the button-down, go-through-channels world of the BOP, a world in which dirty laundry is almost never publicly aired. The campaign to oust Pugh, a veteran administrator, has sparked internal investigations, inquiries by Representative Joel Hefley and at least three probes of possible unfair labor practices by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The warden's monitoring of the site has become a flashpoint of controversy itself: Union members claim Pugh has threatened legal and disciplinary action against his critics and has exiled one outspoken employee to "home duty" status for months.
Local and national union officials declined comment or did not return phone calls. At press time, Warden Pugh had not responded to questions submitted in writing by Westword. But hearing transcripts and other documents resulting from the FLRA's involvement, as well as postings on the site, provide some details of the virulent feud.
The warden's union troubles began shortly after he took command of ADX in the fall of 1998. Reassignments that were apparently made without posting competitive vacancy announcements stirred some resentment, but that was nothing compared to the outrage that greeted some of the new boss's comments.
At a staff meeting, he allegedly made a remark to the effect that when corrections officers are killed by prisoners, it's probably because they'd been "messing with the inmates" and provoked the attack. Although Pugh sought to "clarify" his statement at a subsequent meeting, insisting that he'd been misunderstood, the incident did little to help his standing with the rank and file at ADX, which houses many violent inmates who've attacked guards at other prisons.
According to union members, Pugh has also made statements describing the union as "corrupt" and accusing various employees of being in league with prison gangs. At an FLRA hearing, Pugh denied making such statements, but several employees have vented their indignation over the alleged slurs in cyberspace, posting messages on the local's Web site that refer to the warden as "Our Moron-in-Charge," a "short, balding paranoid," "power-crazed," and worse.
"Wow! That idiot actually put me under his phony investigation!" seethed one union stalwart. "Not since Colonel Klink commanded Stalag 13 on Hogan's Heroes has such a pompous simpleton ever been placed in charge of any prison!"
The relentless, increasingly personal attacks on the warden -- including a salacious limerick that portrayed him as a peeping Tom who was once arrested by police, a broadside Pugh has denounced as "totally false" -- soon prompted him to consult an attorney about a possible defamation suit.
Early in 1999, he met with union leaders in an attempt to halt the barrage. He told them that the Web site "was undermining his authority," testified union veep Eric Barker at an FLRA hearing two months ago. "He said it was ruining his life...It was causing problems at home. He was having trouble eating, sleeping...He told us that we were defiant and arrogant."
There were messages on the site "referring to me as a child molester, as a pedophile, as one who wears a trench coat and carries candy," Pugh testified at the same hearing. "I've been compared to or called Little Hitler, a Nazi, a racist...[it's been implied] that I'm a Ku Klux Klan member, mentally ill, deranged."
At the hearing, Pugh admitted that he knew little about the Internet; in fact, he said, he didn't know how to turn on the computer in his office. But for several months, he monitored activity on the Web site on a regular basis, having a technician print out new postings and assemble them in black notebooks in the warden's office. In its FLRA complaint, the union maintains that Pugh used the information to retaliate against his critics and to make "coercive statements" to employees -- for example, by consulting the notebooks to gauge union members' "loyalty" when they came to him asking why they hadn't received an expected promotion or bonus.
During one such meeting last summer, testified employee Eric Nicholls, Pugh told him, "I don't think you're loyal. You're not a team player." Sean Riggins, a union steward, recalled a similar meeting in which he got the impression the warden was withholding a raise based on one comment he'd posted on the site: "He said that what we have here is some dirty staff within the union trying to get things stirred up on the Web site to take the heat off themselves."
Pugh has admitted suggesting that some members were using the Web site "as a shield" but has denied retaliating against anyone. Both Riggins and Nicholls received the pay increases they sought, but another user of the site, a harsh critic of Pugh's regime, has been reassigned to work at home for nearly six months; it's not clear what reasons were offered for the move, or what his current duties might be. Despite union claims that Pugh has threatened to investigate numerous employees based on inmate allegations of misconduct or the warden's own "hunches," a recent letter to the local from the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General indicates that none of the officers supposedly under suspicion are the subject of a current OIG investigation.
One FLRA charge against ADX management, which dealt with the warden's alleged efforts to bypass the union in soliciting employees' input on work schedules, was recently settled in favor of the local. A ruling in a second action concerning Pugh's alleged efforts to silence the Web site is expected in a few weeks. The cyberspace vilification of Pugh has been toned down since the local issued a unanimous vote of no confidence in the warden last summer, but new controversies continue to erupt.
One stems from a memo Pugh issued last fall banning cups, bags, T-shirts and other staff paraphernalia bearing the logo "Alcatraz of the Rockies." "Many people associate the Alcatraz prison facility with a cold, brutal, abusive environment," Pugh wrote. The reference "sends the wrong message to staff, the public and the inmates, and is not consistent with providing a humane, safe, secure, and professionally run institution."
But many employees take pride in ADX's reputation as the New Rock, and the phrase "Alcatraz of the Rockies" is still featured prominently on the local's home page -- along with accusations that the warden continues to engage in "illegal, retaliatory, forced reassignments of union members" and other union-busting activities. In letters to high-ranking BOP officials (who have backed Pugh) and congressman Hefley (who has expressed some sympathy for the local's position), union officials have raised a rash of other charges, including possible security breaches, the alleged "squandering" of public funds on cash "loyalty awards" and improper investigations, and the warden's supposed penchant for asking employees off-the-wall questions such as, "Do you have any children born out of wedlock?"
Perhaps the most serious allegation to surface in recent months concerns the abrupt transfer of an ADX clinical psychologist to another prison in the Florence complex last November. Pugh reversed his decision two weeks later, but not before the employee began to raise uncomfortable questions about the reasons for the transfer.
According to union sources, the employee, Michael Morrison, had previously reported to his superiors that Pugh had violated policy by removing an inmate from a suicide watch without first having the action approved by a psychologist. No harm resulted to the inmate in question, but the issue is a sensitive one; ADX, which was designed to be virtually suicide-proof, had two inmate suicides in the last six months of 1999.
"Morale is horrible," reports one ADX employee, who asked that his name not be used. "Sick leave has gone way up. People just don't like coming to work."
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