By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon And Dick Foster, Rocky Mountain News
October 14, 2006
Guards at Supermax say the nation's toughest federal prison is getting more dangerous by the day, and this week a federal arbitrator agreed with them.
Arbitrator Joseph Lazar ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to boost safety for correctional officers at the Fremont County prison.
Corrections officers claim that safety has nose-dived at Supermax since the prison started cutting guards in March 2005. Since then, there have been two homicides, and assaults on guards have increased.
Earlier this year the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals 1302 filed a grievance with the Bureau of Prisons alleging that the bureau did not staff the penitentiary to the minimum levels to maintain the safety and security of the institution.
The union and the prisons bureau agreed on an arbitrator resolve the grievance, which led to Lazar's findings.
Supermax houses 400 of the most notorious criminals in the nation. They include Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols.
Lazar did not order the Bureau of Prisons to boost staffing levels, but said managers must "lower the inherent hazards" at the facility. The ruling is supposed to be binding, but Supermax managers say they don't have the money to staff the prison. They say they have been turned down four times for additional funds.
However, federal and state lawmakers plan to use the arbitrator's findings to buttress their case to Congress because it validates the union's long-held position that more federal dollars are needed for enhanced security at Supermax.
State Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, whose district includes Supermax, has made it her mission to boost safety at the prison. She held a news conference Friday at the State Capitol to highlight the arbitrator's ruling. She said managers at Supermax are doing the best they can with inadequate resources, and that it's time for Congress to act.
Some members are beginning to take note.
U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar sent a letter this week to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales demanding that he take immediate steps to ensure safety at Supermax.
Salazar, a Democrat, blasted the prison system for allowing convicted terrorists to send letters from the prison aimed at recruiting suicide bombers, a key finding of a recent Department of Justice Inspector General's report.
Sean Conway, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard's chief of staff, said Supermax must get necessary funds.
"Everyone can recognize that Supermax is a very dangerous place that houses some of the nation's most dangerous criminals. Supermax needs all the resources necessary," Conway said.
"Senator Allard wants to ensure that resources that were approved by Congress didn't get diverted away from Supermax."
McFadyen and union officials representing the guards have been lobbying members of Congress to fully fund all critical guard positions.
McFadyen also wants a wall around the four federal facilities at Florence to prevent terrorists from ramming through the flimsy cow fence now surrounding the facilities. She said her primary concern is not that inmates will escape from Supermax, but that terrorists may stage an attack, putting both the prison and the surrounding communities in jeopardy.
"We cannot put the nation's most dangerous criminals in a prison that doesn't have enough security or personnel," McFadyen said. "We cannot imprison terrorists like Zacarias Moussaoui on the cheap."
She and union representative Mike Schnobrich said the arbitrator's ruling and the recent Inspector General's report show that boosting safety at Supermax and all federal prisons is vital to national homeland security.
The number of guards at Supermax has dropped from 220 in 1994 to approximately 170 today. McFadyen insisted that it's time for Congress to focus on the risks.
"Fremont County keeps the U.S. safe. I'm calling on Congress to keep Fremont County safe."
Officials in Florence and Fremont County reiterated their concerns Friday about the vulnerability of their communities to a terrorist attack. "We'd be naive not to be somewhat concerned because they are housing these terrorists," said Fremont County Sheriff Jim Beicker.
Recent problems at Florence pen
• A federal indictment revealed in September that a drug kingpin serving a life sentence was able to use coded messages to continue to direct his operations in Los Angeles, despite being incarcerated since 1997.
• Four times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal Bureau of Prisons has been denied money to tighten security.
• Inmate cells are no longer searched on a regular basis because of a lack of staff.
• In March of 2005, the Bureau of Prisons began to cut guards.
• In April and May of 2005, inmates murdered two other inmates - the first homicides in more than 10 years.
• Entire housing units have been left without staff during some shifts.
• A Department of Justice Inspector General's report in September found that convicted terrorists were sending letters, potentially recruiting new terrorists from behind bars.