Understaffing the Supermax

The U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum outside of Florence is so thinly staffed that the unit housing some of the nation's deadliest terrorists has gone as long as 24 hours without any guards supervising the unit.

That's one of the charges hurled this morning by representatives of the guards' union. With the help of state representative Buffie McFadyen (pictured here), they've been trying to call public attention to staffing problems at ADX for months.

Two years ago the Bush administration cut 2,300 jobs from the Bureau of Prisons under a reorganization plan, creatively titled "mission critical." Since that time assaults on staff by inmates have jumped significantly and ADX, the highest-security prison in the country, has had its first two inmate homicides. Feeling the heat over security breaches, last February U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales led an all-star delegation on a tour of the prison, supposedly to assure everyone that staffing was more than adequate.

But as we reported here and here, the illusion that ADX was back up to full strength was created by shifting staff from other prisons in the Florence complex, including the ever-turbulent USP Florence. Now Gonzales is gone and the practice of rotating staff seems to have died down, but union leaders say ADX staffing has fallen to 75% of full strength.

"I'm confident the BOP will disagree with these numbers," McFadyen says. "But if the most secure prison in the United States is understaffed again, what is happening across the bureau?"

It's no coincidence that these reports of a skeleton crew watching over our most dangerous criminals come on the heels of our report, "Fortress of Solitude," which revealed that no reporter has been allowed to tour ADX or interview any of its inmates for more than five years. If there's nobody around to keep an eye on the terrorists, who's going to protect the place from journalists? -- Alan Prendergast

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Cronin