Look for the Union URL

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.

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., 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."

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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

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