Maximum Security Federal Prison: ADX Supermax

A bed, desk, and sink in prisoner's cell
 Lizzie Himmel / Getty Images

US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, also known as ADX Florence, the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," and "Supermax," is a modern super-maximum security federal prison located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Florence, Colorado. Opened in 1994, the ADX Supermax facility was designed to incarcerate and isolate criminals deemed as being too dangerous for the average prison system.

The all-male prison population at ADX Supermax includes inmates who experienced chronic disciplinary problems while at other prisons, those who have killed other prisoners and prison guards, gang leaders, high-profile criminals, and organized crime mobsters. It also houses criminals who could pose a threat to national security including Al-Qaeda and U.S. terrorist and spies.

The harsh conditions at ADX Supermax have earned it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as being one of the most secure prisons in the world. From the prison design to the daily operations, ADX Supermax strives for complete control over all prisoners at all times.

Modern, sophisticated security and monitoring systems are located inside and along the outside perimeter of the prison grounds. The monolithic design of the facility makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with the facility to navigate inside the structure.

Massive guard towers, security cameras, attack dogs, laser technology, remote-controlled door systems, and pressure pads exist inside a 12-foot high razor fence that surrounds the prison grounds. Outside visitors to ADX Supermax are, for the most part, unwelcome.

Prison Units

When inmates arrive at ADX, they are placed in one of six units depending on their criminal history. Operations, privileges, and procedures vary depending on the unit. The inmate population is housed at ADX in nine different maximum-security housing units, which are divided into six security levels listed from the most secure and restrictive to the least restrictive.

  • The Control Unit
  • The Special Housing Unit ("SHU")
  • "Range 13," an ultra-secure and isolated four-cell wing of the SHU.
  • Special Security Unit ("H" Unit) for terrorist
  • General Population Units ("Delta," "Echo," "Fox," and "Golf" Units)
  • Intermediate Unit/Transitional Units ("Joker" Unit and "Kilo" Unit) which houses prisoners entered into the "Step-Down Program" which they can earn their way out of ADX.

To be moved into the less restrictive units, inmates must maintain clear conduct for a specific time, participate in recommended programs and demonstrate a positive institutional adjustment.

Inmate Cells

Depending on which unit they are in, prisoners spend at least 20, and as many as 24-hours per day locked alone in their cells. The cells measure seven by 12 feet and have solid walls that prevent prisoners from viewing the interiors of adjacent cells or having direct contact with prisoners in adjacent cells.

All ADX cells have solid steel doors with a small slot. Cells in all units (other than H, Joker, and Kilo units) also have an interior barred wall with a sliding door, which together with the exterior door forms a sally port in each cell.

Each cell is furnished with a modular concrete bed, desk, and stool, and a stainless steel combination sink and toilet. Cells in all units include a shower with an automatic shut-off valve.

The beds have a thin mattress and blankets over the concrete. Each cell contains a single window, approximately 42 inches tall and four inches wide, which allows in some natural light, but which is designed to ensure that prisoners cannot see anything outside of their cells other than the building and sky.

Many cells, except those in the SHU, are equipped with a radio and television that offers religious and educational programming, along with some general interest and recreational programming. Inmates wishing to take advantage of the educational program at ADX Supermax do so by tuning into specific learning channels on the television in their cell. There are no group classes. Televisions often are withheld from prisoners as punishment.

Meals are delivered three times a day by guards. With few exceptions, prisoners in most ADX Supermax units are allowed out of their cells only for limited social or legal visits, some forms of medical treatment, visits to the "law library" and a few hours a week of indoor or outdoor recreation.

With the possible exception of Range 13, the Control Unit is the most secure and isolated unit currently in use at ADX. Prisoners in the Control Unit are isolated from the other prisoners at all times, even during recreation, for extended terms often lasting six years or more. Their only meaningful contact with other humans is with ADX staff members.

The compliance of Control Unit prisoners with institutional rules is assessed monthly. A prisoner is given "credit" for serving a month of his Control Unit time only if he maintains clear conduct for the entire month.

Inmate Life

For at least the first three years, ADX inmates remain isolated inside their cells on an average of 23 hours a day, including during meals. Inmates in the more secure cells have remote-controlled doors that lead to walkways, called dog runs, which open into a private recreation pen. The pen referred to as the "empty swimming pool," is a concrete area with skylights, which inmates go to alone. There they can take about 10 steps in either direction or walk around thirty feet in a circle.

Because of the inability for prisoners to see prison grounds from inside their cells or the recreation pen, it is nearly impossible for them to know where their cell is located inside the facility. The prison was designed this way to deter prison breakouts.

Special Administrative Measures

Many of the inmates are under Special Administrative Measures (SAM) to prevent the dissemination either of classified information that could endanger the national security or of other information that could lead to acts of violence and terrorism.

Prison officials monitor and censor all inmate activity including all mail that is received, books, magazines and newspapers, phone calls and face-to-face visits. Phone calls are limited to one monitored 15-minute phone call per month.

If prisoners adapt to the rules of ADX, they are permitted to have more exercise time, additional phone privileges and more television programming. The opposite is true if prisoners fail to adapt.

Inmate Disputes

In 2006, Olympic Park Bomber, Eric Rudolph contacted the Gazette of Colorado Springs through a series of letters describing the conditions at ADX Supermax as one meant to, "inflict misery and pain."

"It is a closed-off world designed to isolate inmates from social and environmental stimuli, with the ultimate purpose of causing mental illness and chronic physical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis," he wrote in one letter."

Hunger Strikes

Throughout the prison's history, inmates have gone on hunger strikes to protest the harsh treatment that they receive. This is particularly true of foreign terrorists; by 2007, over 900 incidents of force-feeding of the striking prisoners had been documented.


In May 2012, the family of Jose Martin Vega filed a lawsuit against the United States District Court for the District of Colorado alleging that Vega committed suicide while incarcerated at ADX Supermax because he was deprived of treatment for his mental illness.

On June 18, 2012, a class-action lawsuit, "Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons," was filed alleging that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was mistreating mentally ill prisoners at ADX Supermax. Eleven prisoners filed the case on behalf of all mentally ill prisoners at the facility. In December 2012, Michael Bacote asked to withdraw from the case. As a result, the first-named plaintiff is now Harold Cunningham, and the case name is now "Cunningham v. Federal Bureau of Prisons" or "Cunningham v. BOP."

The complaint alleges that despite the BOP's own written policies, excluding the mentally ill from ADX Supermax because of its severe conditions, the BOP frequently assigns prisoners with mental illness there because of a deficient evaluation and screening process. Then, according to the complaint, mentally ill prisoners housed at ADX Supermax are denied constitutionally adequate treatment and services.

According to the complaint

Some prisoners mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Others swallow razor blades, nail clippers, broken glass, and other dangerous objects.

Many engage in fits of screaming and ranting for hours on end. Others carry on delusional conversations with the voices they hear in their heads, oblivious to reality and the danger that such behavior might pose to them and to anyone who interacts with them.

Still, others spread feces and other waste throughout their cells, throw it at the correctional staff and otherwise create health hazards at ADX. Suicide attempts are common; many have been successful."

Escape artist Richard Lee McNair wrote to a journalist from his cell in 2009 to say:

"Thank God for prisons [...] There are some very sick people in here... Animals you would never want living near your family or the public in general. I don't know how corrections staff deal with it. They get spit on, s*** on, abused and I have seen them risk their lives and save a prisoner many times."

Cunningham v. BOP was settled between the parties on Dec. 29, 2016: the terms apply to all the plaintiffs as well as present and future inmates with mental illness. The terms include the creation and revision of policies governing mental health diagnosis and treatment; the creation or improvement in mental health facilities; the creation of areas for tele-psychiatry and mental health counseling in all units; the screening of inmates prior to, after, and during incarceration; the availability of psychotropic drugs as needed and regular visits by mental health professionals; and ensuring that the use of force, restraints and discipline are applied appropriately to inmates.

The BOP to Access of Its Solitary Confinement Practices

In February 2013 the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) agreed to a comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons. The first-ever review of federal segregation policies comes after a hearing in 2012 on the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences of solitary confinement. The assessment will be conducted by the National Institute of Corrections.

View Article Sources
  1. Shalev, Sharon. "Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement." London: Routledge, 2013.

  2. "USP Florence Administrative Maximum Security (ADX) Inspection Report And USP Florence-High Survey Report." District of Columbia Corrections Information Council, 31 Oct. 2018. 

  3. Golden, Deborah. "The Federal Bureau of Prisons: Willfully Ignorant or Maliciously Unlawful?" Michigan Journal of Race and Law, vol. 18, no. 2, 2013, pp. 275-294.

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Montaldo, Charles. "Maximum Security Federal Prison: ADX Supermax." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, September 8). Maximum Security Federal Prison: ADX Supermax. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Maximum Security Federal Prison: ADX Supermax." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).