When it was built, Alcatraz was said to be the toughest prison in America. It housed some of the 20th century’s most dangerous and most famous criminals. Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Mickey Cohen were among the first prisoners on what was famously known as ‘the Rock.’ Alcatraz opened in 1935 and closed in 1965. It’s a tourist attraction today but compared to America’s newest ‘toughest prison,’ known as Supermax, Alcatraz seems almost provincial.
Strange as it may seem, Supermax is a good neighbor, said Florence, Colo., City Manager Mike Patterson. But like all good neighbors, the characterization comes with some qualifications. On one hand, Supermax employees, the guards, administration and support staff, have steady and good paying jobs. The prison contributes to the local tax base and few of the townspeople give a second thought to the place.
But the same can’t be said for people who’ve only read about Administrative Maximum Facility or ADX, the formal name for ‘Supermax.’ But despite the fact that no prisoner has escaped in the 25 years of Supermax, outsiders, said Patterson, “end up with a preconceived notion that the town is more dangerous.”
You can’t blame them. The list of inmates housed at Supermax reads not so much like a ‘who’s who,’ but a ‘oh, hell no!’ It is a collection of men deemed so dangerous that the Department of Prisons refers to them as national security threats; so evil that they’re not even allowed to speak with one another, let alone mix in a general population as is the practice in most American prisons. Except for one thirty- minute break each day when they’re allowed to leave their cell---under the watch of a team of guards---they’re cell-bound. It’s the same 80-square-feet seven days a week until they’re released or die. For most, it will be the latter.
Among the nearly 500 inmates calling Supermax home are the ‘Unabomber,’ Theodore ‘Ted’ Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber, Terry Nichols, Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, shoe bomber, Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the planners for the 9/11 attack. All are serving life sentences. Tsarnaev awaits execution. Toss in a few neo-Nazi terrorists, Aryan Brotherhood members, American spies like former FBI agent Robert Hanssen who sold top secret information to the Russians and it’s easy to understand an outsider’s apprehension. (Though currently unconfirmed, Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, drug cartel kingpin ‘El Chapo,’ is thought to be headed this way after sentencing in June.)
Patterson said that the Department of Prisons communicates regularly with the town’s police chief when a particularly notorious inmates is coming. “We’re very much aware,” he said, that El Chapo may land in Supermax. “The warden briefed our police chief.”
But subtract the 37 acres Supermax sits on, to the locals, ‘it’s just Florence.’ “People have preconceived notions that the town is more dangerous (than it is),” said Patterson. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. Every year we’re ranked as one of the ten safest places in Colorado,” he said.
Florence, which is about a hundred miles southwest of Denver, sits along a line in southern Colorado that is meteorologically known as ‘the banana belt’ of the state. The most recent storm, the bomb cyclone, that hit Denver and northern Colorado with a vengeance didn’t touch Florence. While the storm basically shut Denver down, Florence was bombarded with light rain, said Patterson. It was business as usual.
The economic benefits of having Supermax as a tenant, said Patterson, are, of course, the jobs. The town also sells water to the prison and, like a lot of subcontractors during the recent government shutdown, had to wait on payment. The check finally arrived.
Supermax is the town’s biggest employer. But most of its workforce lives elsewhere, including Pueblo and Pueblo West, said Patterson. “We don’t have housing choices,” he said. “The last numbers we had,” he said, showed the town “fifteen to twenty percent short of what we need.”
Patterson has talked to city council and city leaders about undertaking an effort to boost the town’s profile and let people know it’s a good place to live and raise a family. “We’ve become a more attractive place for people who want a peaceful life,” said the Washington state native. “We don’t want uncontrolled growth but sure wouldn’t mind a hundred new houses.”
Housing prices, said Patterson, are “right there with Pueblo,” where a house rents for “around $1,200.” But, “when it comes to construction costs, we’re a lot less expensive.” A three-bedroom home, “something nice,” he said, would sell for around $200,000.
Despite the impression outsiders may have of a town housing ‘America’s most dangerous prison,’ Patterson thinks a single visit to Florence will dispel the idea. “For a small town, we have great restaurants,” and “we’re known as the antique capital of Colorado.” There are plenty of options for bicyclists, hikers and anglers. And, said Patterson, the prison is secure. `