Bringing Humanity to the Supermax Prison Facility

Corrections Prison Supermax

By Leischen Stelter, for In Public Safety

The United States Penitentiary Administrative-Maximum Facility is a federal Supermax prison, the highest security facility in the country. For the rest of their lives, most inmates here will spend 23 hours a day confined alone in a 7-by-12-foot solid concrete cell. The only hint of the outside world is a 4-inch slit in the wall, about 42 inches high, that allows in a small amount of natural light and a glimpse of other buildings. For the one hour a day prisoners are allowed outside, they remain confined in an outdoor cage, slightly larger than their cell, only able to see the sky above.

The Supermax is intentionally designed to be confining in every way because it houses the nation’s most dangerous and notorious criminals. “The Supermax holds the worst of the worst of the worst,” Robert Hood, who was the Supermax warden for three years, told In Public Safety.

When Hood was warden from 2002-2005, the Supermax housed 410 inmates. Infamous inmates include Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber; Terry Nichols, co-conspirator of the Oklahoma City bombings; and Zacarias Moussaoui, conspirator of the 9/11 attacks. The Supermax also houses lesser known, but highly dangerous inmates who can’t be secured in lower security facilities.

Making a Difference at the Supermax

Throughout his 35-year career, Hood approached corrections through the lens of a teacher. He got his start in education, earning a master’s degree in special education, but instead of completing his student teaching requirement at a traditional school, he did so at a maximum security state prison. “Nothing in education clicked for me as much as working in prisons,” he said.

Hood eventually transitioned from prison classroom instructor into administrative roles that eventually led him to several wardenships. In these high-ranking positions, he had the influence to implement an educational programming approach in addition to maintaining a necessary focus on security and safety. One educational philosophy that Hood brought to each of the prisons he oversaw was the concept of an individualized education plan (IEP). Hood believes that every person—inmate or not—has the ability to change and can benefit from an individualized plan directed towards personal improvement.

Hood has seen firsthand that an IEP approach has widespread benefits. “Not only do inmates behave better, but staff was getting hurt less, and there was better communication between them. A lot of positive things came out of using this approach,” he said.

When Hood accepted the wardenship at the Supermax, he was determined to maintain his educational programming approach. However, these prisoners—and their surroundings—were indisputably different. First of all, re-entry into communities wasn’t an option. There would be no work training programs, no job fairs, no efforts to help them reintegrate into society. Most of these inmates were never leaving.

“How do you deal with someone like Tsarnaev [the Boston Marathon bomber]? Here’s a 21-year-old guy who did a terrible thing and now faces a minimum of life in prison,” he said. “A young kid like that, you have to wonder if death is better than the Supermax.” Despite the grim reality, Hood remained determined to find a way to make a difference in the lives of these prisoners.

He started with trying to change the mindset of staff and how they treated inmates. “We’re dealing with people who will be incarcerated for the rest of their lives, let’s not make it worse than it already is, let’s not do things to make them more hostile,” Hood would tell staff. “We don’t want to praise these inmates, or condone in any way what they did, but in order for us to go home to our families and feel good about our jobs, we have to find a way to show them some humanity.”

Changing staff mindset started with setting an example of how to interact with inmates. Unlike previous wardens, Hood would regularly visit inmates and take time to talk with them.  Hood would say things like: “Hi Ted, I really appreciate how clean your cell is. How’s the staff treating you?”

Initially, Hood’s approach was unpopular among staff. Many felt like he was questioning how well they were doing their jobs to people who had committed atrocious crimes. “I understand why someone would not want to be buddy buddy with these inmates,” he said. “But I would tell staff, it’s not going to hurt you to say good job to them.”

Despite the initial pushback from staff, Hood persisted with his strategy of engaging inmates and many staff eventually followed suit. “I would regularly praise staff for talking to inmates,” he said.

Treating these prisoners better was not only more humane, but also in the best interest of staff safety. “After a few months of modeling these interactions, I noticed we were having less feces thrown, prisoners were hurting themselves less often, and there were other indicators that inmates were doing better,” he said.

He did other things to try to improve the lives of Supermax prisoners. Each cell had a small TV so staff would host bingo games and other competitions that prisoners could participate in from their cells. The facility broadcast Smithsonian television programs and other educational shows to provide intellectual stimulation for prisoners. In addition to providing reading and educational materials, Hood also allowed teachers to sit in front of cells to teach lessons. These small changes started to have a positive impact. “We were slowly changing this society of captives and it was making a difference,” he said.

Hood left his wardenship of the Supermax in 2005 due to mandatory retirement limits of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It was a great finale on his long career in corrections and despite the intensity of the Supermax—both in inmate population and facility design—he felt he was still able to make a difference. “To have some who blew up a building—did one of the most horrific acts you can imagine—say to me: ‘I want to thank you for your humanity and bringing humanity into this building where I will die’ is the biggest reward as a warden,” he said.