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SuperMax prison is super lax, court cases allege

From Drew Griffin and James Polk
CNN
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FLORENCE, Colorado (CNN) -- Two California court cases are raising questions about whether prisoners in the nation's toughest prison, SuperMax, are continuing to commit crimes by smuggling coded messages out of the high-security institution.

Officially known as Administrative Maximum (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, SuperMax is home to convicted terrorists such as Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Ramzi Yousef, who led the first World Trade Center attack.

Even though he is serving a life term, Mexican Mafia leader Ruben "Nite Owl" Castro was indicted recently on conspiracy charges that accuse him of continuing to run 18th Street Gang drug sales on the streets of Los Angeles from his SuperMax cell.

Two leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang are to be sentenced next week in federal court in Santa Ana, California. They were convicted on conspiracy charges including instigating a murderous race war at another prison through a message smuggled out of SuperMax.

A report by the Justice Department's inspector general found the Bureau of Prisons "is unable to effectively monitor the mail of terrorist and other high-risk inmates in order to detect and prevent terrorism and criminal activities."

While that finding, issued in October, was aimed at the entire federal prison system, the report said SuperMax failed to monitor at least half of each month's inmate phone calls for the last year checked.

The prison employees' union and local officials say the guard force at SuperMax is well below the number employed when the prison opened a dozen years ago, and it has sunk below the minimum manpower levels established a year ago.

The warden at SuperMax and top prisons officials in Washington declined CNN requests for an interview.

Colorado State Democratic Rep. Buffie McFadyen, whose Pueblo district includes SuperMax, said budget problems for the prison system have left the top-security facility short-changed and short-staffed.

Terrorists inside the prison could be plotting another attack without anyone knowing it, McFadyen said.

"Absolutely. Could happen, could happen," she said. "And that should be frightening for any citizen in the United States of America."

The two Aryan Brotherhood leaders, Barry Mills and Tyler Bingham, were convicted of smuggling out a message in invisible ink calling for a racial war against blacks at a prison in Pennsylvania.

Federal prosecutor Terri K. Flynn said of the message, "It was written in grapefruit juice. And pretty much, you write it in a Q-tip or toothpick, and then the back of it is heated up, and the message becomes visible."

Prosecutors asked for the death sentence for Mills and Bingham, but the jury deadlocked on that part of the case, and so both face automatic sentences next week of life without parole.

Mills already is serving a life sentence on a previous conviction.

So is Castro, who was convicted in another drug conspiracy case more than a decade ago. The latest federal indictment says he used coded letters, phone calls and his girlfriend's help to get messages out of SuperMax and that he supervised the collection of kickbacks on drug sales in his gang's territory just west of downtown Los Angeles.

No date has been set for his trial.

A recent ruling by a federal arbitrator said because of manpower problems at SuperMax, entire cell blocks were left without inside staffing for full shifts on a number of occasions. The doors are electronically controlled, however, and there is constant remote-control camera surveillance.

In addition, the arbitrator found, "Inmate cells were no longer being searched on a regular basis due to lack of staff."

The inspector general's report said, at times, the special investigators who are supposed to read inmate mail at SuperMax were pulled from their duties to fill vacancies in the cell block staffing.

The Justice Department inquiry was initiated when Spanish authorities found a SuperMax inmate, Mohammed Salameh, who rented the Ryder truck used in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, had been sending letters to a terror cell with links to suspects in the deadly 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Since then, SuperMax staffing has continued to drop, the prison union says. A decision on prison system funding is pending in Congress' current lame-duck session.


story.supermax.afp.gi.jpg

Guards walk along the fence at the SuperMax prison in this file photograph.

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