Florence, Colorado, is one of the sweet spots, perhaps even the buckle of Colorado’s ‘banana belt,’ so named for the temperate winds that warm southern Colorado’s winters. If you haven’t visited, Florence is more than worth the 90 or sominute drive from Denver.
There is a lot to like about Florence, not the least of which is its pristine natural surroundings. Mesquite-laden hills blend seamlessly into the nearby eastern range of the Rockies. The town is clean and quaint with its main artery dotted with bakeries, coffee shops and antique stops that invite day trippers year around. And then, there’s Supermax.
Supermax is the most notorious federal prison in the nation. It sits on a 37-acre plot of land just a few miles from center city Florence. More formally known as the government’s Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX), it is the most secure American prison ever built and has been ironically dubbed the ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies.’
The prison houses a ‘who’s who’ of American and international criminals, including one-time Mexican drug kingpin, El Chapo; Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. ‘El Chapo,’ Joaquin Guzman, and Kaczynski are serving life sentences. Tsarnaev is appealing his death sentence. If successful, he’ll likely win a life sentence in Supermax along with most of the 340 or so other inmates, each labeled the worst of the worst.
Supermax inmates spend their time in cells of approximately 80-square-feet, an area no larger than a spacious closet. There is no view of the outside world. A television with a limited set of channels in each cell provides the only break from monotony. “That’s got to be a horrible life,” said Florence City Manager Mike Patterson. The government has been more than efficient in creating an unending and ‘Groundhog Day’ like existence in Supermax while scrubbing clean anything resembling comfort at this last stop before eternity.
One early warden, Robert Hood, wasted neither words nor sentiment in describing Supermax. “As soon as they come through the door...you see it in their faces. That’s when it really hits you. You’re looking at the beauty of the Rocky Mountains in the backdrop. When you get inside, that is the last time you will ever see it. The Supermax is life after death.” Time here doesn’t stand still. It only feels that way. Since opening in 1994, no one has ever escaped unless you count sleep.
As punishing as Supermax can be for its permanent residents, this 21st Century steel and concrete dungeon has been an economic boon to Florence, said Patterson. The prison has brought employment to a town that desperately needed jobs. The exact number remains a tightly guarded secret, one held by only those with a need to know. It’s “for security reasons,” said Florence’s chief executive. What he does know is that a lot of the prison’s shift workers eat at Florence’s restaurants, gas up in town and, some also now call the town home.
Supermax’s last big name arrival was El Chapo, who was brought here in the dark of night in July 2019. Patterson was briefed on Guzman’s arrival though prison officials did not name the inmate, nor disclose his arrival time. Though the prison would periodically confer with him on things he should know, said Patterson, COVID pretty much shut off any recent dialogue. Briefings about the prison now go directly to the town’s top cop. “My police chief gets them all.”
Even though Supermax and Florence are synonymous, said Patterson, it is more a point of curiosity to visitors than to locals. Residents have grown accustomed to living in the shadow of the nation’s most impenetrable prison as well as the other prisons that occupy real estate in Fremont County. Territorial, “Old Max,” has been a fixture here since 1871. It stands out like a lost-in-time sentinel as you drive along Highway 50 in Cañon City. But there are more than a dozen other correctional facilities here too, each representing differing levels of security.
From Florence itself, the prison goes mostly unnoticed and unspoken. It is not even visible. A clearly marked road leads to the facility, but it is used mostly by prison officials, staff and inmate visitors. Still, the pipeline from Supermax to Florence is always flowing and will continue as long as America’s most wanted come here. It will carry seven-figure revenue to pay for the water---a big and regular commodity the prison counts on and Florence supplies---along with those other things that Florence shares with this modern day Devil’s Island.
Very simply, it is a ‘good fences make good neighbors’ relationship. Florence and Supermax, a symbiotic odd couple who, despite their unique personalities, have found a need for one another.