Don't Fence Me In

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales walked the buttoned-down halls of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum in Florence yesterday, then announced that all was super at the federal supermax. No need for more staff or monitoring at the high-tech prison, a repository of terrorists and superfiends. No need for a new $20 million perimeter fence that some in the community have been demanding, afraid that Eric Rudolph or Ted Kaczynksi might slip out and bomb the local Carl's Jr.

Well, that's a relief. The fence was a loony idea, at best, since the entire four-prison complex already has more barriers, cameras and motion sensors than an Anna Nicole probate hearing. Nobody has ever escaped from ADX. The problem isn't the physical security of the place; it's what goes on inside, among dangerous men who have little to do in total isolation other than go mad or figure out ways to defeat the system.

Long before the uproar began last fall over terrorists communicating with the outside world in sloppily monitored mail, ADX was being used by Barry Mills (pictured) and other prison gang leaders to direct a race war across the federal prison system. A refresher course in how to use urine to write secret messages can be found in our story, "Bringing Down the Brotherhood." No fence is going to fix that.

Even as Gonzales was taking his uneventful tour, a federal trial was dragging on in Denver over a particularly gruesome murder that went down at the high-security pen next door to the supermax. William Sablan, who might just be insane, is accused of eviscerating his cellie, Joseph Estrella, in the course of a long night of drinking and playing cards in the "special housing" (protective custody) unit of the USP Florence; Sablan's cousin, a notorious gang leader, was also in the cell and also faces a murder trial. In video footage of the carnage shown to the jury, Sablan is seen mocking the corpse, putting a cigarette in his mouth, and gargling with Estrella's blood.

Articles in our Crime and Punishment archive have examined the Estrella killing and rogue guards in that dysfunctional unit, notably "Marked For Death" and "Cowboy Justice."

The profound neglect that the feds have shown toward operations at Florence is at the heart of the horrors that go on there; that AG Gonzales has taken aninterest in the place only because some Islamic recruiting slogans slipped out isn't particularly encouraging.

As noted in a previous blog, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has beefed up staffing at ADX by thinning the ranks at the USP and other prisons in the complex -- hardly a sound move. But as long as the mail of shoe bomber Richard Reid gets checked for subversive messages, who cares? -- Alan Prendergast

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts