When a criminal is deemed to be the "worst of the worst," they're sent to the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, otherwise known as ADX. This high-security prison in the middle of nowhere is meant to keep hardened offenders as far away from the general population as possible. It's unlikely anyone could escape, and for many of its residents, ADX will be the last place they ever see.
ADX has been operating since 1994 and it's the only prison in America that offers no real means of rehabilitation. Most of the people who end up there have either committed enough terrible acts that the system doesn't know what to do with them, or they've committed crimes against the American Government.
The institution has come under fire for its lack of medical facilities and treatment of its patients, and in the mid-2010s, after a significant amount of legal pressure, ADX reevaluated its practices. Still, the day-to-day life for an inmate at ADX isn’t a cakewalk, and most of them spend their time in solitary confinement.
A facility built to house the most dangerous people in America is not going to be a nice place. Regardless of the inmates' offenses, they are still people, but the design of the facility works to remove all semblance of a normal life from those who are interred, and keep inmate movement as minimal as possible.
The parts of the building that the inmates can see are made of concrete and steel, and it's been compared to Guantanamo Bay, a detention camp notorious for its poor treatment of inmates. Laura Rovner, a law professor who provides representation for ADX inmates told CNN, "For many people, being confined at ADX in what will amount to a life sentence there really is kind of a form of living death. It just takes everything away from you. Your existence is limited to the four walls of this small cell and frankly not much else."
Solitary confinement units can be found in just about every correctional facility in the nation, from state units to supermax facilities. These areas are used to house inmates who represent a threat to the staff and others, or as a way to hold those who are apt to escape or cause problems within the institution.
ADX keeps all of its inmates in their own isolated space for 23 hours a day, allowing only one hour of time outside of their cell. The idea behind this holding technique is that those being confined in ADX would inevitably start trouble if they were allowed to mingle. Sometimes the one hour of free time is ended with little to no warning, meaning inmates are forced to stay in their cells for days at a time.
ADX is most famous for holding the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, as well as national offenders like Terry Nichols and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. It also houses former FBI agent Robert Hanssen and Michael Swango, a doctor who is accused of poisoning 60 of his patients.
The lesser-known inmates in ADX are there for a variety of offenses: Many attacked fellow inmates at their previous holding facilities or attempted to escape medium-security institutions. Former ADX inmate David Shelby was incarcerated in the supermax after sending threatening letters to President Bill Clinton in order to convince him to release Charles Manson.
Essentially, if the justice system doesn't think they can reform an inmate, they're sent to supermax.
Supermax facilities like ADX are designed to keep inmate movement to a minimum, and to allow guards to have as much control as possible. Cells are built with a single 4-inch-wide window that's about 3 and a half feet off the ground. From an inmate's vantage point, there's nothing to see - not even the mountains surrounding the facility are visible.
Even when an inmate is out of their cell for an hour of free time, they're not allowed in areas where anything natural is around. ADX warden Robert Hood explained to CNN, "The architecture of the building is the control. You're designing it so the inmates can't see the sky. Intentionally. You're putting up wires so helicopters can't land."