Inside ADX: The Federal Supermax Locks Inmates Down and Shuts Reporters Out

It's difficult to imagine a more severe form of long-term isolation than the past seven years of solitary confinement experienced by former Colombian rebel commander Simon Trinidad, the subject of this week's Westword cover story, "Gone Guerrilla." Serving sixty years for his (much-disputed) role in the kidnapping of three American civilians, Trinidad is confined to a unit in the federal supermax in Colorado reserved for Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) inmates, including Al-Qaeda operatives and others linked to global terrorism. The ability of SAMs inmates to communicate with family, friends and even their own lawyers is severely restricted — and, in some instances, just about nonexistent. For example, letters sent to Trinidad by supporters in the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera (his birth name) are returned unopened. 

As for contact with the media, forget it. Even if Trinidad weren't a SAMs case, he still wouldn't be permitted to meet with a reporter. He is, after all, a resident of the notorious U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, which a former warden once described as "a clean version of hell." Contrary to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' own stated policies, which indicate that media interview requests are to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, ADX officials have routinely rejected every journalist's effort to obtain face-to-face interviews with supermax prisoners for the past fourteen years, citing unspecified "security concerns." 

You heard that right. It doesn't matter whether you're trying to interview one of the prison's high-profile residents — such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols or Aryan Brotherhood leader Barry "The Baron" Mills — or seeking to sit down with one of the plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit claiming that the 23-hour-a-day lockdown regimen has exacerbated severe mental illness in some inmates. Except for a tightly supervised tour by select media reps in 2007, the place has been essentially off-limits to journalists since the September 11 attacks. 

It was a different story when ADX first opened in 1994. The BOP was pleased to show off its shiny, high-tech bunker, a repository for the so-called worst of the worst. As a reporter covering criminal-justice issues, I was able to tour the place and conduct interviews with two of the more political inmates among its early arrivals, 1970s radical activist Ray Levasseur and Puerto Rican separatist Oscar Lopez Rivera. I was also able to correspond with a former Aryan Brotherhood shot-caller named Danny Weeks, who blew the whistle on a secret snitch unit within ADX that enjoyed special privileges, fed the feds dubious information, and was involved in a massive investigation of the AB that led to a sprawling, badly misfiring indictment of dozens of inmates years later. 

The last time I was inside ADX, oddly enough, was to interview another Colombian who, like Trinidad, was charged in the United States for a crime against Americans that occurred on another continent. Dandenis Munoz Mosquera, alias La Quica, a former employee of Medellin cartel lord Pablo Escobar, has been accused of killing more people than Timothy McVeigh. He's virtually unknown in this country, but he's serving ten life sentences in ADX. 

A few years after that, my request to interview former AB leader Tommy Silverstein — whose crimes at USP Marion, including the brutal slaying of a corrections officer, helped to trigger the push to build ADX — was denied because of the aforementioned "security concerns." I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how many media requests for inmate interviews had been turned down. The answer: all of them, an even hundred since September 11, 2001. (My interview with La Quica may have been the last in-person meeting between a journalist and an ADX inmate, other than that 2007 tour.) As my report on this noted at the time, "BOP policy states that a warden can suspend all media visits during 'an institutional emergency' but provides no other basis for an ongoing ban on inmate interviews. Warden [Ron] Wiley refused a request for an interview about the five-year ban at ADX or when it might be lifted."

I was able to interview Silverstein by mail in order to produce a story about his quarter-century of solitary confinement, "The Caged Life." Other journalists have reached out in similar ways to ADX inmates since then, but that option isn't available for SAMs cases. When I contacted an ADX spokesman to confirm that the ban continues, he expressed some doubt that such a ban existed. On the other hand, he was unable to cite any instances of journalists gaining access during the few months he's worked there. He indicated he would "do some research" and get back to me. 

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast