Is the Supermax Prison Facility in Florence, Colorado Cruel and Inhumane? Is it Torture?

First, let it be noted, that I have had three friends murdered in three incidents: one on Pam Am Flight 103, one in the World Trade Center, and one in an armed robbery and triple murder at the restaurant where he worked in Washington, DC. Also let it be noted that I believe in fair trials and fair punishments that comply with sustainable moral values and do not perpetuate the world’s current cycle of violence. With that in mind, and with the idea that cruel and inhumane punishment probably hurts the punishers and the punishers’ societies as much or more than it hurts the prisoners, I wonder out loud about the Supermax prison facility in Florence, Colorado. I had never heard of the place before today, when I skimmed the an article about Zacarias Moussaoui’s life sentence for terrorism. In that article, it noted that the facility was known as the Alcatraz in the Rockies and that prisoners where held in solitary confinement for their entire lives. I did a little research on the facility and found the following perspective interesting and thought provoking. What do you think?

From “Killing me every day”: Contemporary Latino/a Culture and the Growing Prison Crisis
Amy Abugo Ongiri
Assistant Professor of English
University of California, Riverside

[O]ne report terms the Supermax facility at Florence “The Last Worst Place” in the US penal system because “[a]t Florence, isolation is all there is” (Taylor). In 1997, Judge John Martin sentenced Luis Felipe to the most repressive conditions yet experienced by any of the inmates of the Federal Supermax Facility at Florence, Colorado. Stating, “this defendant has forfeited any right to human contact,” Martin deprived Felipe of the right to send or receive mail or to receive visits from anyone other than his lawyer and court-approved members of his immediate family of which he has none.

Though under constant surveillance, the facility’s state of the art technology has denied Felipe even the minimal contact he might have experienced by interacting with corrections officers or other prisoners. Under lockdown twenty-three hours a day, Felipe receives all prison meals alone in his cell through a high tech system that denies him even the minimal contact he might have had with the corrections officers distributing the meals.

The conditions of Felipe’s incarceration represent the extremist possibilities for punitive isolation that Supermax facility’s present technology allows, but all such facilities are built around the principles of isolation and surveillance that are literally destroying Felipe and others like him.

Prisoners at the federal Supermax facility in Florence are locked down in total isolation nearly 23 hours a day in a space which one report notes is “barely big enough for a Ford Expedition” (Johnson). Cells are soundproofed and prisoners are constantly under surveillance though all furniture is made of poured concrete and access to any non-prison items is extremely limited.

Though prisoners are only allowed outside their cell only in leg irons and handcuffs the perimeter of the prison is guarded by dogs trained to attack without barking (Langton). Amnesty International has investigated the prolonged solitary confinement of the Supermax facility as a form of torture and at least one prisoner has successfully litigated damages for confinement in a Supermax facility as “cruel and unusual punishment” (Hallinan). Prison rights activist Ray Luc Levasseur explains it best for those on the outside when he says “lock yourself in your bathroom for four years and tell me how it affects your mind. It begins to erode the five senses. It’s dehumanizing” (Annin).

Lawrence K. Freitell, Felipe’s lawyer, has argued [t]hat existing in this state of forced isolation and surveillance has caused Felipe to literally lose his ability to communicate verbally with others. At his sentencing Felipe prophetically declared to Judge Martin “You accuse me of killing people, but you’ll be killing me every day” (Kocieneiwski). While Luis Felipe’s case presents an extreme example of the conditions facing the Latino/a population in the nation’s correctional facilities, it raises important questions about the nature and limitations of “corrections” and its impact and influence on [c]ultural [s]urvival.