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The Prison Writings of Seth Ferranti: Supermax

This is an excerpt from Seth Ferranti’s new book, Gorilla Convict: The Selected Prison Writings of Seth Ferranti. The book is published by Strategic Media Books. To buy the book or for more information go to or

By Seth Ferranti

The Abu Graib photos exposed torture, humiliation, degradation, sexual assaults, assaults with weapons and dogs, extortion and blood sports. The world, the media and the public were appalled and outraged at the images captured- prisoners with nylon bags over their heads, naked prisoners spread-eagled on wet floors in isolation, handcuffed to the wall, deprived of sleep and being kicked in the stomach repeatedly by guards. Prisoners were shocked and stunned that, with no regard for human decency, they were burnt or branded and their family members threatened. These images that emerged from Abu Graib made the headlines but in reality all they did was expose the brutal underbelly of the beast and the procedures practiced regularly by guards in U.S. jails. All of the above are the modus operandi of the lawful, state-of-the-art prison. Nowhere is this more clear than in the growth over the past 25 years of what’s known as supermaximum imprisonment.

On the cutting edge of technology,.supermaxes are known for their strict lockdown policies, lack of amenities and prisoner isolation--techniques. Originally set-up in 1972 at USP Marion to house the most violent, hardened and escape-prone criminals, they are now used for leaders of criminal organizations and gangs, serial killers, persistent rule breakers and political prisoners like spies and terrorists. With limited access to visits and phone calls, supermax prisoners are confined alone in tiny cells up to 23 hours a day. They are isolated yet under intense surveillance. Their keepers want to know when they sleep, when they eat and when they shit. Every aspect of their lives is under official control. They're offered one hour of recreation in a small cage that’s often referred to as a dog kennel. They have no communal eating areas, no opportunities to work or to attend educational programs. There are no windows, only solid doors with slots for passing food trays and cells with the lights kept on 24 hours a day. The cells are designed to keep the sound out, so prisoners rarely hear another human voice. The isolation is total, and these underground control units often referred to as Admax, she, adseg or imu are constructed with fortified tunnels, double doors, remote control locking mechanisms and furnished in concrete and steel equipped with around the clock audio and video surveillance The most infamous of the Supermaxes is ADX Florence, the federal Bureau of Prisons maximum security prison.

USP Marion replaced the notorious Alcatraz and ADX Florence replaced USP Marion, which was put of indefinite lockdown from 1983 to 1994, demonstrating the need for a permanent lockdown prison. Hence the construction of ADX Florence, which has been called the Alcatraz of the Rockies„ "We just needed a more secure facility," said Tracy Billingsley, a BOP spokeswoman. "We needed to bring together the most dangerous who required the most intense supervision to one location.” And many states followed the feds’ lead. California copied the concept with Pelican Bay and now there’s over 57 other Supermaxes with over 13,500 beds in the U.S. Bob Snelson, a union leader at ADX said, “Most of our inmates are very violent. They have short fuses. We are dealing with people who can go from reading the bible to trying to kill you.”

People like Luis Felipe aka King Blood, leader of NY Cities Latin Kings, Larry Hoover the leader of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples, Mexican mafia leader Ruben “Nite Owl” Castro and Aryan Brotherhood commission members Barry “The Baron” Mills and TD “The Hulk” Bingham who were all charged with running their gangs from their ADX cells after receiving natural life sentences for their prior offenses. But the list goes on-- notorious DC hitman Wayne Perry, Lorton prison kingpin Keith “Fly” Gaffney, B-More druglord Anthony Jones, NY City street legend Peter “The Pistol” Rollack and mob turncoats Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. There’s also a literal bombers row at ADX, with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber; Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber; Ramzi Ahmed Yousef who planned the 1993 WTC attack; Timothy McVeigh’s partner Terry Nichols and 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. The father of actor Woody Harrelson, Charles Harrelson, who killed a federal judge, is there, as well as white supremacist Mathew Hale who tried to kill a federal judge, Robert Hannen, the FBI agent who spied for Russia and Yu Kikumura, the Japanese Red Army member who plotted to bomb the NY Navy Rec Center. Krista Rear an ADX spokesperson said, “Sometimes we receive inmates here at ADX as a direct court commitment. The rest of our inmates are here from other penitentiaries where they were unable to be safely and securely housed in a more open population setting.” And with only 490 beds only the worst of the worst make it to ADX.

Terrorist, big-profile mobsters, gang leaders and white supremacists are imprisoned there along with political prisoners, prisoner organizers, prisoners who file lawsuits and voice other complaints about the system. And there have been many complaints from critics and former ADX prisoners that the Supermax is inhumane and cause its occupants to go crazy. The attorney for Luis Felipe aka King Blood said that his client broke down from the stress of isolation and requires medication. Christopher Boyce a convicted spy who was at ADX said, “You’re slowly hung. You’re ground down. You can barely keep your sanity.” And Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber wrote the following words to a newspaper, “Supermax is designed to inflict as much misery and pain as is constitutionally permissible. It’s a closed off world designed to isolate inmates from social and environmental stimuli. It’s a political prison. The government not only uses it to house problem inmates, it also uses it to add an extra measure of punishment for those inmates who have been convicted of politically motivated offenses.”

To get the real deal about ADX we reached out to penitentiary veteran and DC Blacks gang member Little Ceaser who’s been doing time in the federal system since the 70s, with stints at both USP Marion during the 80s and ADX Florence in the late 90s. Of his time in the Supermaxes, Little Ceaser says, “It’s like being in a tunnel for years where your radio and communication frequency has gone out, where you can’t reach out to anyone and it seems no one can reach you but you’ve got to navigate through the darkness with hopes that there is really a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Little Ceaser was first sent to lockdown at USP Marion after an attempted murder charge “on a rat that was trying to make bones to join the AB’s by cutting a borderline retarded brother’s throat,” he relates. “I pled out on the case and got a fresh 37-month sentence.” And a one way ticket to the toughest penitentiary in America at the time. “Marion was the toughest in regard to psychological effects. The early 80s was an era of aggression, an ear of murder as well as malicious wounding,” he says. “It was different then. Back then a motherfucker had to have good game on how to get out on the pound, be prone of violence or under somebody’s wing in some kinda way. I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of men…. convicts.” And as part of the feared DC Blacks gang Little Ceaser mad his way.

Little Ceaser says the convict who eventually ended up in ADX Florence in the late 90s has been locked up with a who’s who of American gangsters. “Nicky Scarfo, John Gotti, Jeff Fort of El Rukns, Big Naughty, Rayful Edmonds before he turned rat, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff and many other kingpins and gang leaders. He reveals that the worst part of ADX Florence was the mental abuse. “The psychological abuse administered by staff was a key mind controlling factor.” Little Ceaser asserts. “There were subtle as well as overt battles of the mind, and with the state of chaos being what it was, you always needed a source to stabilize your thinking to keep you from crossing the line of psychological to physical warfare because the circumstances were so unusual. The underlying conflict between races and the different gangs and territorial factions was constant and kept both inmates and officers alike off balance. They constantly had to worry that the next incident might surely erupt in violence.”

Little Ceaser eventually completed the three-year step program that keeps inmates in their cells 23 hours a day for the first year and then gradually socializes them. In the last year, prisoners can come out of their 7-foot by 12-foot cells into a pod like area with other prisoners to see how they act. “It was a matter of coming to grips with the fact that people were just people,” Little Ceaser says. "That shit will make or break you. It’s incumbent upon each individual to either build themselves up or allow themselves to fall deeper into the folds of the system. The longer you’re in a situation like that the more you become a part of the environment, and the more you become a part of the environment, the harder it is to sustain ones sense of purpose and sanity relative to societal norms." And we know that the feds bury undesirables at ADX with no chance of ever coming out or completing the step program.

Undesirables, political prisoners and those convicted of continuing criminal activity from prison that the feds want to hold limbo incommunicado just like the war detainees at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay are housed at ADX—that is, whoever the government wants to keep on ice and away from the public eye. In ADX rehabilitation is not an issue. Punishment, control and cutting the individual off from the rest of the world is the MO. Every occupant is kept in near total solitary confinement. Beds, desks and stools are all made of poured concrete. Toilets have a valve that shuts off the water in case flooding occurs (prisoners are notorious for flooding their cells with water) and the sinks have no taps just buttons. A 42-inch window four inches wide looks out on a one man rec yard, and a 12-inch black and white TV shows closed circuit classes in psychology, education, anger management, parenting and literacy. The extreme isolation is the way the BOP achieves extreme control over the individuals incarcerated there. But recently there have been numerous problems at ADX.

Opened in 1994 to replace USP Marion where 20 prisoners and two guards were killed by the likes of AB member Thomas "Terrible Tom" Silverstein the preceding decade, ADX Florence was hailed in corrections as the safe new model for high-security prisons. But after 11 years with no murders, there have been two since February 2005. Clearly things at ADX are heating up, and critics are attacking the Supermax structure from all angles. With budget cuts forcing 3,147 critical shifts left unfilled in the last couple of years, a CNN report called it Superlax. A report by the inspector general found that the BOP "is unable to effectively monitor the mail of terrorists and other high risk inmates in order to detect and prevent terrorism and criminal activities. Inmate cells are no longer being searched on a regular basis, and the fact that the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia gang leaders ran their criminal empires from isolation make it worse.

“Every thing is changing-- the laws, the penalties, the technologies and the old methods for controlling communication are passé, caput," says Little Ceaser. And he's right. When gang leaders in the most secure facility in the U.S. can smuggle out instructions and direct their organizations from their prison cell, something is definitely wrong. "They have cut the staffing budget so short that it’s just a matter of time before we have a riot." Union rep Mike Schnobrich said. And ADX union leader Bob Snelson reiterated this, "When they are supposed to get an hour of recreation a day and they get none for weeks, or they can't make a phone call for weeks, they go into a killing fury." And with threats of violence or murder against guards doubled from 55 in 2004 to 110 in 2005, there is room for concern. Officers are regularly pelted with urine and feces, and one counselor was attacked by a prisoner with a papier-mâché spear and nearly had his eye cut out. But the pendulum can swing both ways, and it does.

"Prisoners have been gassed, beaten, pepper sprayed, 4 pointed to the bed, strip searched constantly and extracted from their cells forcefully. Mind control, medications and chemical weapons are used to incapacitate prisoners. A guard at ADX said, "Its chilling to walk down the cellblocks and glance through the Plexiglas sally port chambers into the cells and see the faces inside. It’s a bunch of terrorists and psychopaths. Inmates run showers all day and night and scream for hours when the water is cut off. Other prisoners yell that CIA agents are monitoring their thoughts. It’s sad. Many have lost all hope." With the routine excessive force, tasers, chemical sprays, shotguns, sensory deprivations and overload, pacification with drugs and violent cell extractions, Supermax looks more and more like the feds are waging war, a security war.

Over the past 10 years, prisoners’ political and civil rights have been severely disabled. The language of security has authorized Supermax imprisonment by treating it not as punishment but as a set of administrative procedures for managing high-security populations. The procedures now legally sanctioned were once considered violations of the U.S. constitution’s eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. "These are the most dangerous of people, Attorney General Roberto Gonzales said. But does that justify the way they are treated? The militaristic aspects of policing have intensified the use of lethal force inside the Supermaxes. The sophisticated weaponry and surveillance equipment- metal detectors, x-ray machines, leg irons, waist chains, black boxes holding cages and all the rest have dehumanized the prisoners. So how should we expect them to act?

“I have seen them rot," prison expert James Aiken said. "They rot." And maybe that is what our government wants. Or maybe it’s like the former warden of ADX ,Robert Hood, who was remembered as especially restrictive and sadistic by former prisoners, said, "No ones getting out of Supermax, period, end of story."

If that’s the truth then out society has truly degenerated. If a man doesn't deserve to live in society, then why not put him out of his misery? Why this sadistic nature for the ultimate retribution? Is that what all the tough on crime rhetoric is about?

This is an excerpt from Seth Ferranti’s new book, Gorilla Convict: The Selected Prison Writings of Seth Ferranti. The book is published by Strategic Media Books. To buy the book or for more information go to or

Copyright © & Seth Ferranti

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Comment by Dale .L. Porter on January 22, 2013 at 1:32pm

Seth has got some pretty good stories to tell and has a captivating style of writing,much like the authors of Gangsters Inc.I enjoy reading at the Gorilla Convict website and have learned of people I never heard of with some serious history of their own.I've always been a reader of the traditional Mafiosi and this has broadened my "criminal" horizons (book-wise,of course!).


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