Here is a true-life account of life in one of the world’s toughest prisons — Florence ADX, Colorado, USA — the Supermax.
The ultra-secure penitentiary is home to the baddest … Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, Mafia dons, drug cartel bosses … and escape artist Richard Lee McNair.
The Oklahoma born-and-raised McNair — a one-time killer, three-time escapee — was captured by the RCMP in Campbellton, New Brunswick in October 2007.
The former U.S. Air Force Sergeant had been on the run for a year and a half after a spectacular escape from a federal prison in the southern U.S.
Richard McNair’s account of his time in the Supermax forms Chapter 24 of my book, The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail. I suspect few can chronicle life at ADX Florence better than federal inmate #13829.045.
If you’re into true crime, the book is available on Amazon.com … and Amazon.ca. Click on the link for Amazon books at the very end of this post.
McNair’s quotes — in bold italics — are drawn from his 300-plus letters, all written by hand from his solitary confinement cell in the most secure part of ADX Florence — the Control Unit.
Our correspondence started in 2008.McNair was confined to his cell 23-hours a day with no physical contact with other inmates.
Through his own words, one gets a glimpse of what life is really like at the ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies.’
[Credit for that cool aerial shot of ADX Florence goes to The New York Times.]
On the 18th of April 2008, the freshly-captured prisoner who had been featured a dozen times on the TV show America’s Most Wanted was on the move again. Handcuffed and shackled, Richard Lee McNair sat on a Bureau of Prisons bus that lumbered out of United States Penitentiary [USP] Pollock, Louisiana.
His destination, a thousand miles distant, was yet another Big House — from which there would be no escape.The high-profile, high-risk inmate was being transferred to the sleepy Southern Colorado foothills town of Florence, home of the most secure penitentiary in the Bureau of Prisons system: ADX Florence.
The joint is officially known as the Administrative Maximum Facility, unofficially as the Supermax — and ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies.’ An American Gulag, if you will.
No one has ever escaped from ADX Florence. Of the thousands of men who’ve been incarcerated there, only a handful have left before their release date and all the same way — on a gurney, covered by a white sheet.
From Louisiana, McNair was on a prison bus headed to the Federal correctional complex at the southern edge of Florence, just off Highway 67. The sprawling compound — some of it underground — is a collection of several penitentiaries, each with each own level of security.
When McNair stepped off the bus he had with him a 6-page document from USP Pollock outlining where he was headed at ADX Florence: general population. In spite of the paperwork, the prisoner was promptly marched to the Special Handling Unit, known in prison speak simply as the SHU. Segregation.
A sudden change of plans. It was looking like some faceless bureaucrat had quietly pulled off a switcheroo.
Back to the prison document. There was a check mark beside the box that read: “Your conduct creates a risk to institution security and good order, poses a risk to the safety of staff, inmates or others, or to public safety.”
A few months later, McNair was in for a surprise when he was marched to a single-person cell in a dreaded part of the joint known as the Control Unit. That’s high-end solitary confinement.
In just six months, the former Air Force Sergeant went from being as free as a bird to locked up in a living tomb in the most secure part in one of the most secure prisons on this planet.
The prison complex at Florence was opened in 1994 at a cost of 60 million dollars. Cameras, pressure pads, laser beams and attack dogs warn guards if anything or anyone moves between its walls and the 12-foot high fence that surrounds the complex. The fence is crowned with loops of shiny razor wire that glisten in the bright Colorado sun.
The Supermax is home to about 500 prisoners, all considered to be the most dangerous. Those in need of the tightest control are in the ‘Control Unit.’
Through hundreds of letters written over five years, Richard McNair, federal prisoner #13829.045, provides a rare glimpse into life at the ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies,’ particularly in the Control Unit.
The Control Unit
“The Control Unit has an evil vibe to it. Byron, it is difficult to explain. But just a bad vibe …
“Everything is negative. Not the staff, but the inmates, etc.”
Some things about the ultra high-security penitentiary really get under Richard McNair’s skin, as expected, but surprisingly it’s not all negative. All things considered, there’s no doubt that life in the Control Unit at ADX Florence is a real struggle.
“It is 09:33 and I look out my window on a sunny day. Not a cloud. Guess what? The huge security lights are on again!
“They have cut our air drastically, almost nothing in the way of air flow from 1700 to 0600 [5 p.m. to 6 a.m.] and they say it is to conserve energy. Then, I look outside and see the lights on.
“They sprayed the weeds in the little concrete area outside my window. So the weeds are wilting. How the weeds are blowing is how I know if the wind is blowing hard. Really does not matter in warm weather, but in the winter — important.
“How do I know the temperature outside, you ask? I check the local country music station out of Cañon City [Colorado] and yes, I ask the staff.
“Most of the time they say, ‘Oh hell it is cold out there, you don’t want to go out.’ Of course, they are just joking. The fewer inmates who go out, the sooner they can do their chores.”
A prisoner in the Control Unit is confined to a cinder block cell roughly 7 by 12 feet, about the size of the average bathroom. The cell has a shower, toilet, metal mirror, light and [up until the spring of 2013] a combo radio and a 13-inch black and white television.
The only way to hear any sound from the TV or radio is to use headphones.
Desk, stool, and bed are all poured from concrete. Read: indestructible. There is a bunk — and a mat — but no mattress. Inmates learn not to plop themselves down on the bed because on either side of the mat protrude three steel posts about the height of the mat — tie-downs for the legs, wrist and head region. The posts are used to strap down unruly prisoners.
Unlike other pens, inmates in the Control Unit do not meet in a common dining room. Meals are delivered to their cells three times a day. Room service, if you will.
“IT BREAKS YOUR MIND”
Prisoners cannot socialize. That means they can’t wander freely in an exercise yard, as in some joints, and so they’re stuck in a cell nearly 23 hours a day. Long-term lockdown. The solitary confinement has been compared to ‘dying every single day.’
In an interview with CBS, a former prisoner at ADX Florence says the Supermax is unlike any other prison. Garret Linderman describes the segregation as the “brutality of isolation.” “It destroys the human spirit,” he says, “breaks down the human psyche. It breaks your mind.”
It hasn’t broken McNair’s mind, though it would be fair to say it almost did a number of times.
According to McNair, the isolation has sure done a number on some of the cons.
“It is so sad. I have seen and heard one of the guys deteriorate mentally. He went from a somewhat functioning individual to hearing voices. Paranoia. I’ll write about it on a separate sheet in case it is considered a security issue.”
[Turns out, McNair’s letter was not censored by the guards.]
“I’ve seen individuals deteriorate before — but not this drastic. His physical health is bad also. He will scream about people talking about him. No one is. At least they were not until he started spinning out. Sad, but what can one do? He is one of those ‘tuff guy’ white supremacists. I absolutely cannot stand him.”
Like other joints, ADX Florence has daily, stand-up counts — at any hour.
A VERY LIMITED VIEW
Cells in the Supermax do not have windows, at least not as we know them. A 4-inch slit in the thick concrete wall allows a small amount of natural light to enter. If the sky is clear and it’s the right time of day, prisoners are able to feel the warm rays of the sun for a few minutes.
One item not stocked in the prison canteen is suntan lotion.
“I’m sitting here looking out the window at a very deceiving scene: sun shining, bright day — but bitter cold. Have not gone outside for recreation for two days.
“The wind was blowing good yesterday and the temperature was seven degrees; no idea what the windchill was. Did some exercising in the cell.”
CLEAN, NOT QUIET
In an interview with CBS, Robert Hood, former Warden at ADX Florence, described the Supermax as a “clean version of hell.”
Clean, yes. But quiet? Hell no! At the Supermax, cons can’t get together and talk, and so communication amongst themselves is reduced to shouting down air vents and into sink drains. The yelling is muffled, sure, but it’s still a human voice.
For prisoners not part of the banter, the stifled conversation is an annoyance that digresses to a maddening racket which can drag on for hours. There is little they can do except either politely ask their neighbors to keep the noise down, or reach for the ear plugs and headphones and pray they’ll shut up.
The first option doesn’t always work.
The second option doesn’t work either. The ear plugs and headphones are next to worthless.
“The young ones are screaming. There be football on. If the other ones don’t acknowledge one of them the one wanting to holler will start screaming, “Hey! Hey!” over and over until he gets his turn to holler. Just crazy. They have been going at it for two days now.
Two hollering their chess moves for hour after hour. Another is whistling.
“Another is hollering non-stop about getting out. I can’t stand the guy, but he is going home from here. No chance to decompress.
“This is a train wreck waiting to happen.”
McNair wrote about two prisoners in particular who got under his skin …
“Just one punk can make many miserable. With most guys, you can ask to hold it down and they comply. These two only get louder. In spite of the earplugs and headphones, I couldn’t hold a thought. The past two days have been real bad.
“Don’t know what is in the water, but these idiots have been screaming at one another and it broke down into race. Some nasty, nasty stuff. There is a reason for a Supermax.
“Dear Lord. These two punks have been hollering to one another since 07:30 and it is now 13:27. Today is canteen day and I think they get excited. I keep waiting for them to yell, ‘I loves you!’ ‘No, I loves you more!’ ‘No, I …’
“There is no way two men can have anything to holler about for five or six hours straight. Okay, I don’t know if they are in love, but I never talked to a woman as much as these two yell back and forth.
“Lord help us if a rap song they like comes on …”
A TYPICAL RLM LETTER …
McNair often has no idea who his neighbors might be. Are they Mafia bosses? Killers of correctional officers? Bombers, drug lords or rogue F.B.I. agents?
Internet sites publish lists of the more infamous prisoners at the Supermax, but the inmates there aren’t allowed to see those lists.
ADX Florence is a Who’s Who of Really Bad Dudes. Richard Lee McNair could be living next door to terrorist bombers Theodore Kaczynski [the Unabomber], Eric Rudolph [Olympic Park Bomber] or Abu Esa Abdul-Raheem, better known as Richard Reid [the Shoe Bomber].
The man described as the ‘mastermind’ of the September 11th attacks, French-citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, could be in a cell one range over. Former F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen — aka Graysuit and Jim Baker — the man who spied for the Russians for two decades — could be in the cell above Richard McNair, or two cells down. Who knows?
Terry Nichols remains locked up in the bowels of ADX Florence. Nichols was convicted for his part in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The explosion killed 168 people and injured more than 800.
Timothy McVeigh, the former Bronze Star soldier who parked his explosives-laden rental van on a busy street in downtown Oklahoma City, is a former resident of the Supermax. In 2001, McVeigh was put to death by lethal injection.
“Really don’t care for about 90 percent of the people here. Thank God for prisons. There are some very sick people in here — and prison in general. By ‘sick’ am not referring to a severe mental illness. Am speaking of sexual predators, gladiators — animals you would never want living near your family.
“Ninety percent of the guys think they are the baddest dudes walking the earth. They seem to forget their pop gun got taken away at the front door. I would like to see them try to survive in Afghanistan. Though I have to admit, some of these guys probably did come from nasty neighborhoods.
“Many inmates’ names are Motherfucker. Must have had the same daddy.”
In spite of having the worst criminals as neighbors, Richard McNair maintains he’s in a safe place. Save for the times when they work out in the recreation cage or go for medical care, prisoners don’t see each other. When prisoners do leave their cells, they’re shackled and surrounded by guards, so there’s little chance of physical contact with other cons.
“No stupid undercover bombers to deal with; no vehicle traffic to get run over by. Being in prison I am also protected from many of the problems people in the real world have to deal with.”
McNair elaborates on the near-constant noise at the Supermax. It adds a whole new meaning to ‘venting.’
“I am now having to listen to a ‘cool guy’ screaming — on another range. He sounds like Michael Jackson. He even laughs like him. I have earplugs and headphones with plenty of volume and this piece of shit is still bleeding through. Six freaking hours.
“Every few hours I pour water down the drains in my cell to muffle his crappy ass voice. It helps — for a few minutes.
“Oh, there is the knucklehead on the lower floor, three cells down. That means six concrete walls, four doors — and I can still hear his sorry ass.
“Yesterday was crazy. We got a new individual on the tier. A couple of ‘bros’ knew him. I put in new ear plugs, put on my headphones, turned up the volume and wrote to you. This new guy and one of the guys who should know better yapped to one another all evening. I fell asleep around 9 with earplugs and headphones. Woke up at 3.45 a.m. to peace and silence. Am taking full advantage of it. Had a cup of coffee, ate some bread with peanut butter and some salad.
“Had an idiot beat on his cage all night long while another asshole screamed about B-Ball [basketball]. Right now they are screaming ‘bout who be dribbling the ball best.’
“We are in the middle of an amazing lightning storm. I mean, bolts of lightning are striking one right after another. Never seen anything like it here. Being 5,400 feet up has a lot to do with it. Okay, now everything has stopped. Perfect tornado weather.
“Oh man, water is running down my wall. That is unreal. You can only imagine how thick the glass is. I was like, Holy crap, the rain is hitting so hard, the window can’t hold it back. Not much water, but for water to penetrate this fortress is amazing. Not even going to talk about the construction of this place, but if water can find its way into a missile silo, it can get anywhere. The rain went from pounding to nothing in the blink of an eye. The inmates have gone ape shit. Just stupid. It sounds like feeding time at the zoo.
“Now the power has gone. I mean — zip! Everything is out. Way eerie silence. Even dumb ass downstairs has shut up. He might be pissing his pants. Nope. There he goes again. He just hollered to his neighbor, ‘You light off too?’ No dumb ass, you be the only one.
“The knuckleheads are crazy tonight, trying to out-scream one another. I don’t understand how three can ruin it for the rest of us. They won’t put them together — the idiots all on one tier — since the tiers have to be racially diverse. These are the knuckleheads who walk around in the pens with their pants hanging off their arse.
“A punk on the other tier was screaming at 2 a.m. Why the ‘F’ do we have to be subjected to this? Move his ass to the unit where they keep the hard core terrorists. Give them something to pray to Allah about.
“I think one of the knuckleheads got his shampoo bottle stuck up his ass. He is screaming like someone is raping him. What an idiot. He is the guy who yawns so loud you could hear him down the hall. You have to make yourself yawn LOUD to be heard outside the cell.
“One of the guys who is old like me and does not do the stupid crap shared that when they took him from his cell, he passed one of the loudest knuckleheads. ‘Look at me, I be working out.’ And the idiot was laying in his bunk watching TV and hollering out a count.
“Of the 12 on this tier, only five go to rec regularly.
“The idiots were off the cuff Sunday and Monday. My downstairs neighbor kicked the walls, bars and screamed from around noon Sunday until about midnight. The next day my neighbors on either side of me hollered back and forth for most of the day. The earbuds drown that out but when they beat on the bars or wall, notta is going to drown that out.
“Byron, I hate this place with all my heart. Six years for a non-violent infraction. Some of these guys only get 10 years for killing someone. I was supposed to go to ‘general population’ at Florence but when I got here, someone got a hair up their ass and had me designated to the Control Unit. That is some vindictive shit.
“Well, I’ve whined enough. Later …”
An annoyance to all prisoners is the noisy timer that stops the flow of water every few minutes. Installed to prevent flooding, the timers create a loud BANG when the water shuts off, the racket amplified by the stainless steel shower stall and sink.
Because the plumbing is connected, the clangs set off a chain reaction, not unlike the shunting of rail cars.
“When I say BANG, take a rubber hose, swing it against a wall of sheet metal and you get the idea of what it is like.”
Things are even noisier during Ramadan, the Muslim religious festival. Cell guests get to hear Muslim prisoners reciting early morning prayers. For all but the deaf, the pre dawn devotions are an early wake-up call.
Worshipers wail on and on while the non-worshipers pray for Ramadan to end. It’s one month of pure hell.
“One of the Muslim wannabes is in a cell beneath me. He showers before each of his daily prayers — showers for 30 minutes! Normally, who would be bothered by someone showering? Remember these showers are stainless steel and the water only runs for 90 seconds before it shuts off — with a BANG.
“The wannabes have been screaming at one another for two days. The gist of it is, who ‘be’ the best Muslim. They have called one another bitches and faggots. Such good loving people. I kid you not — this has gone on for two days. Like any religion, Islam attracts the not so bright.
“Many of the terrorists who came to the U.S. — the 9-11 attackers included — visited strip-joints, had porn on their computers, etc. Many of the Arab Princes that were educated in the U.K. and U.S. went off the reservation drinking, ‘whoring’ as they call it. Yet they condemn us.
“Check into what they do on business trips.
“We are not going to appease these punks, so we should quit trying. They remind me of the angry Bible-thumping Baptist women when I was growing up in the ‘Bible Belt.’ Okay, none of these women hijacked a truck and plowed into Billy Bob’s — the largest dance hall in Texas, or it was when I was drinking and whoring.
“It is almost comical when they talk in their code — a bunch of numbers that I believe correlate to words. They holler a string of numbers, then they are repeated so the ‘sender’ can verify the ‘receiver’ got it correct. About to pull my hair out. At least they are not talking in Arabic. That is really annoying.
“Rant over. For now.”
MEALS AND MORE NOISE
Breakfast meals arrive around 6:00. McNair makes his first cup of coffee at 5:45. There’s no hot water in the Control Unit, and to get warm water, prisoners turn on the faucet and let it run for a while. However, if the tap is open too long, the timer kicks in with a loud bang. Another wake-up call.
Prisoners at the Supermax sometimes lose it — go bonkers — kicking nonstop on their steel showers. Neighbors must endure the maddening noise, an extra punishment above and beyond what the judges have meted out.
“I have an idea: take one of them ‘clappers‘ — you remember, ‘clap on, clap off’ — reprogram it for any noise and put a timer on it for 24 hours. Prisons can attach it to the TVs and when the knuckleheads want to holler and clap, they lose their TV as punishment.
“I asked about having a tier of guys who don’t want to yell or act stupid, but it didn’t go anywhere. That is my albatross, having to be around disrespect.
“Thing is, we are trapped. I am starting to dwell on this, and that is not good. Got to take a break and do some meditation.
“Great. Some knucklehead must have busted his sprinkler head. The fire alarm is blaring. When it is close by, the stench of that treated water is just nasty. A sweet odor like antifreeze. Was moved into a cell months after the sprinkler head has been busted off and the cell flooded. The floor will still have a slickness to it, no matter how much you scrub it. And sometimes the wall has streaks on it like acid has been thrown on it. Just nasty.
“The worst is the tear gas. That never leaves the cell. It gets real mild, but it still has a bite to it. Imagine 23 hours a day breathing that. Yeah, I LOVE THIS SHIT! I have learned my lesson. Can I go home now?
“At 3:23 a.m. they have just done a major count and in about an hour medical comes to my neighbor’s cell to give him his meds. Talk about banging doors.”
Do guards patrol the ranges at ADX Florence? Yes, they do, in what has been described as a ‘pencil-whipping walk-through.’
Every three months, like clockwork, inmates in the Control Unit are moved to a different cell. It’s not to reward them with a change of scenery, it’s only part of the security measures.
In the years McNair has been a prisoner at the Supermax, he has changed cells more times than he changed identities while on the run.
“We rotated cells yesterday. This time I went to a cell of someone very clean. I wash my floor every day, but today everything gets clean. I’m going to scrub the stainless steel. The shower is the most difficult to get perfect: no streaks, no stains, and no scum. I wipe it down after each use, but it stains fast. You have to scrub it once a week with scour powder and a green vinyl scouring pad.
“Never buy stainless steel fixtures or appliances; they are a pain to clean.
“Some of the inmates don’t care about themselves, so why should they care how they leave the cell for the next guy? The Hispanics are the most respectful. If you put me on a tier with nothing but Hispanic prisoners I would be happy. In all my time in prison, Hispanics are the most respectful, cleanest and best all around for neighbors.
“Even if we could talk to one another here, I would only speak to three people on this tier; two Hispanics and one white. The rest are no interest to me.
“We moved today — and the cell is a mess. It takes a day or two to get organized. Some knuckleheads leave a nasty cell. At least I moved away from them. The guy downstairs — don’t know who he is — seems to be really quiet, no screaming to his girlfriend every time something happens on TV, no five showers a day. Three months of that stupid stuff. The difference is beyond description.
“Also, laundry comes back today. Monday and Thursday night is ‘send out laundry’ time. I miss doing my own laundry.”
IN DEFENCE OF GUARDS
Richard McNair is not what one would call a ‘typical inmate.’ He speaks favorably of the guards at ADX Florence, describing them as extremely professional.
He wrote about an incident where guards must have felt like they were in a zoo.
“One of the knuckleheads — a mental case — went off on the staff while he was in a recreation cage. I could hear him calling them names. Did staff lower to his level? No. They tried to talk to him and asked what the problem was.
“I couldn’t hear the problem through his rants. He was secured in an indoor recreation cage, a steel and concrete room with solid doors and clear armor for windows.
“About an hour later, the staff returned. He was still ranting. They asked him to ‘cuff up’ [Author: apply handcuffs]. Staff was not aggressive or demeaning. They seemed to ignore the racial taunts and name-calling. He finally allowed staff to secure him with the restraints through the slots in the huge steel sliding door.
“That was impressive. Being a state prisoner, I have seen how state prisons are run. Staff there most likely would have taken his rants personally and offered to send him to meet Allah.”
Orders for extra food and other goodies are submitted to the prison canteen … where nothing is cheap.
Example: the four-inch flexible tube pen [the size of an IV tube] used by inmates sells for 35 cents. The pens run out fairly quickly.
Prisoners aren’t allowed regular pens because they could be used as a weapon.“I have been penning all day long. YESSS my freaking hand is sore. If they had told me the only thing I would have to write with was a putt-putt pencil and soft rubber pen, I would have run a hell of a lot harder!
“How can a pen die so fast? What, 20 pages for 35 cents? Certainly going to show it to the canteen crew.”
If prisoners choose, they can use golf putt-putt pencils to write letters and take notes from courses broadcast on the closed-circuit television.
“Hey, little Ricky has only one person to blame for his predicament — and when I find out who he is, I am going to kick his ass! Just kidding. As you pointed out in an earlier letter, I have already taken out my brain and dissected it. Not pretty.”
The March 2009 shopping list from the prison canteen included a kufi cap [brimless, short, rounded headgear] for $2.76, prayer rug for $13.99, a Rastafarian Crown for $20.70 and prayer oil for $3.25.
A pack of Bicycle playing cards sold for $2.60 and a package of Hall’s throat lozenges [limit of 3], for 95 cents a pack. ‘All sales are final.’
“Just signed for some manila envelopes, 15 cents a piece — up 5 cents. In 2009, ear plugs increased from 20 cents to 40 cents a pair.”
The commissary list makes it clear that certain items — mesh bags, greeting cards and playing cards, for instance — are not available to “SAMS” inmates. Here we go with the stupid initials again. SAMS stands for ‘Special Alternative Measures’ prisoners, inmates who face more severe restrictions with mail, visits, phone calls and things permitted in cells.
“Hopefully, the account will be in order tomorrow. I need stamps. Too bad we can’t stock up on stamps; all we are allowed to have at one time is $8.80 worth. It used to be $24. There is a limit to control gambling, etc. Of course, that is mainly a problem in the regular prisons.
“Today is canteen day so the kids are jacked up on candy. HEADPHONES ON (check). MUSIC ON (check). IDIOTS LEFT IN DUST (priceless).”
Did you know that prisoners at ADX Florence have a choice of diet?
“We get fed better than just about any other prison, federal or state. Several state pens and jails only feed two meals a day. We get three. I eat a little of my meal and save the rest for during the day. When on the streets, I ate five or six times a day.
“I like the new juice; the fact it has vitamins is important. The big things are Calcium, Vitamins E, D and C. Vitamin D is important, especially if one does not get the sunlight each day. Our Calcium/Vitamin D supplement is only $2.50. I have a huge bottle of it.
“All menus get changed the first Wednesday of the month. Will start the Heart Healthy diet. Have never been on it so it will be interesting to see what it is like. Would like to lose a couple more pounds. Once in a while, the fatty diet is okay, but we pay a price. The only thing I am going to miss is the 2% milk. Fat-free milk sucks.
“What milk do you drink? Are you like me when I was out there, whole milk for tea and 2% for the rest?
“I put in to be taken off the diet tray and back on the regular tray. The difference between the meals is no fried food and an extra piece of fruit each day. Lost some weight and that is good, but feel sluggish. Should be turkey for lunch. Good stuff; plenty of protein.
“Wow — we had a sandwich for lunch today. Turkey, wheat bread, lettuce, tomato and a fruit bar. A lot better than most have it. We get three trays a day and when I catch myself moaning, I remember all the people in your country and my country who have nothing.
“For lunch and dinner, we get a scoop of ice with our meal. I can hear them filling the ice bucket (a large 30-gallon container on wheels), right before they pass out the trays and when I hear the ice cubes hitting the bucket, my ears pick up.
“Today is ‘tuna’ fish which sounds good. Sounds being the key word here. The quality of this tuna is questionable. Every time I eat it I have to chew on a Tums [antacid]. We get tuna twice a week; once as a sandwich and once in a noodle concoction.
“Tonight is sub sandwiches. I like sandwiches. Big slices of tomato, ham, mayonnaise, and lettuce. Won’t see tomatoes here unless they are thin slices. Would eat tomatoes out there [on the street] like apples. So good for you. The other day, we got packs of crackers off Southwest Airlines. Past the due date, but really good. Wish I could have sent you the wrapper and said, ‘just got back from vacation and wanted …’
“That would have gotten your attention.”
Supermax prisoners do indeed get out of their cells — though not very often, and not for long.
Aside from the 90-minute workouts in the recreation areas, they’re escorted by guards for medical care and for meetings with staff.The main hallways, which seem to go on forever, are spacious — wide enough for a truck to drive down. And every inch is spotless, shined to a gleam any clean-freak would be proud of.
For recreation, inmates have a choice of places. They can stay indoors or go outdoors to an area known as the ‘kennel.’ The latter resembles an empty swimming pool, with about 250 square feet of floor space.
Once the prisoners are in recreation, the restraints are removed and they’re free to run around. If they’re in the ‘kennel,’ they can, if they choose, just stare at the sky through a grated opening in the roof.
It is the prisoners’ only direct contact with nature.
“Had a great workout today. Did push-ups, rows, and abs. Felt good and it was just cold enough — 18 degrees Fahrenheit [minus 8 Celsius] — to be comfy in shorts and T-shirt. No, we don’t have anything more than a pull-up bar and a dip-bar. Did my stretches and windmills. Windmills are alternating toe touches. They are so good for you.
“Got plenty of sun yesterday. Felt sooo good. Just for health reason, we need sun. I should get sun about once a week this year. Last year was bad — maybe seven days of sun all year. If we have late recreation, then we get sun. If it is at 7 a.m., the sun never reaches us.
“If you get about 10 minutes summer (full) sun in a day you are good, but in the far North or winter months, one needs 15-20 minutes.“Sure wish I had outside rec today. The sun is blasting. On a day like this, I would have packed a day pack, rigged out the mountain bike (GPS, satellite radio, etc.) and went for a ride. Boo hoo.
“Great workout. The weather was perfect. I love working out. Came in and ate an apple and now here I is. Will take a shower in a bit. Will wait for Mr. Shower downstairs to take his third shower of the day. If I take mine at the same time it won’t get on my nerves as bad.”
When a prisoner is finished with his workout, the restraints are put back on and a guard walks him back to his cell.
At the Supermax, guards walk, inmates shuffle.
“Do you stretch? My workouts are usually three hours. I must spend at least one hour stretching. If not, my legs hurt at night. Have you tried Tai-Chi?
“The only thing to die from here is old age or becoming a couch potato, or in our case, a bunk potato. That ain’t going to happen with Ric. I will never get fat or lazy!”“Oh man, just dribbled tea down my favorite T-shirt. Once and a while they give us good heavy T-shirts and yes, they are made in U.S.A. Other times they give us the cheese cloth T’s made in Hong Kong or Indonesia. So I take very good care of the good heavy ones because for the most part, I live in T’s and the Khaki pants they give us. I wet down the T-shirt and put some bar soap on it, then put it in the laundry bag for tomorrow’s laundry.
“My laundry came back not smelling funky. We get two mesh bags and many times it comes back smelling funky. My jockstraps came back a tad shrunk. Great for the ego, but maybe not so great for the long run. Ah, the wit. That be a Byron saying.”
Exercising isn’t the only thing that happens in the rec areas. McNair wrote about a prisoner who had been in the ‘kennel’ just before he got there …
“I shuffled into the inside rec cage after Mr. Ghetto had his 1.5 hours. The guards removed my restraints through the door slots and I look around the cage and there is spit everywhere. I mean, running off the wall, on the floor. Thank goodness, not on the ceiling.
“I yelled down the tier and told the guys, ‘I am not the sorry-piece-of-shit who spit all over the cage. So don’t think I’m the guy who disrespects everyone!’ Mr. Ghetto didn’t say shit. You should thank the Good Lord for your life, Byron. I realize the only person I have to blame for my situation is me — but dang, I was sentenced to hard labor, not these mind games.
“One of the fine young men decided to bust his fire sprinkler this morning. So, of course, the horn on the fire alarm blares. I was in the indoor rec cage and luckily I had ear plugs.
“Our hot water has been off for three days while they do preventive maintenance. I am glad they do it this way instead of waiting for it to break. Then it would break down on a holiday, the parts wouldn’t ship for four days, etc. They are good around here; got to keep the terrorists happy. Okay, that was sarcasm. Bad Ricky.”
“This is an off day, no recreation, so I decided to sleep in — wrong! The Imam was so loud this morning that even with earplugs, his B.S. invaded my brain. Oh God (the good one), I could have been brainwashed.
“Just a few more days of Ramadan left.”
An Imam is a spiritual leader who conducts Islamic worship services at a mosque. He is generally looked up to in the Muslim community.
“Hallelujah! Ramadan is over! I have no idea how long this Imam wannabe is here — so don’t know how many years I have to listen to him. You wanna know what is worse? When I have to be his neighbor and listen to him teaching through the vent. Hour after hour of his teaching and converting the guys who live below him.
“Now I know why 90% of their bombing missions are messed up. Between the five showers and prayers a day, they forget their spot in the Acme Bomb-Making Manual.”
CONTACT WITH OUTSIDE WORLD
Not only is prisoner movement at ADX Florence highly restricted, so is their communication with the outside world. Outgoing and incoming mail is constantly monitored. Same with phone calls.
Inmates can find out about what’s happening in the outside world by watching television, listening to the radio, writing letters and by reading books and magazines. And of course, if McNair wants the latest basketball scores he can always eavesdrop.
“In case you have been Down Under [Australia] or something, March Madness is the basketball tournament for college. I wouldn’t watch basketball if they paid me. My Mom was a high school star in basketball and she hated it that none of us boys played.
“Oklahoma had an earthquake. 4.3. Can you imagine having sex and a big one hits just at the perfect time? Try and repeat that feat. We have had a couple of quakes around here. One, next door, was pretty strong.
“They are preparing to build one of the biggest telescopes — going to build it in Hawaii. Never did understand why they didn’t put one on the moon. Instead of having it float around in space like the Hubble, have it on the moon.
“The F.D.A. [Author: U.S. Food & Drug Administration] is going to approve a diet drug that has serious side effects. Can you say instantaneous voiding of bowels, projective vomiting, dizziness, etc, etc. Hell, just eat raw eggs or take a trip to Africa and drink the water. Cheaper, but then again you can’t sue, huh?
“The N.S.A. [Author: U.S. electronic spy agency] says we were spying on China. And to think we were screaming and crying about China spying on us! Man, I should have gone to the China Embassy in Ottawa and shared that I was an employee of N.S.A. and that the whole prison [escape] story was the U.S.A. Government’s way of discrediting me. Could have had one of those spy rings sold at Walmart. Ooops, that wouldn’t work since it would say, ‘Made in China.’
“Could have printed up a load of file folders that said, “Top Top Super Secret” and traded them for [political] asylum. Probably would have ended up working on the loading dock of the iPhone factory.”
McNair follows the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams. He pulls for the Rams because quarterback Sam Bradford is from Oklahoma City.
“My Cowboys got their butt handed to them. I do like Brett Favre, so not that big of a deal. I think it is going to be the Vikes and Colts. Hopefully, a better game than the rest of the playoff games, though the New Orleans-Arizona game was okay.
“Did I send you that blurb out of The Week that broke down the actual time of action in a football game? Eleven and-a-half minutes of action. Unreal that a two-hour game only has about eleven and-a-half minutes of action.
“When is Canada going to get an NFL team? I suspect American-style football is big there.”
It is popular in Canada. There is a professional eight-team Canadian Football League [CFL], with squads in major cities from Vancouver to Montreal. The rules are slightly different and the skill level sure isn’t that of the NFL.
“Looks as if football will survive. The billionaires and millionaires came to terms, or are about to. All the people out of work … and people want to strike. Crazy.”
And in a letter from McNair dated 30 April 2013, he offers these thoughts on current events:
“Very interesting, today is National Honesty Day. Pretty sad when a country has to have a day of honesty. I guess today would be the day to buy a car.”
MAGAZINES & NEWSPAPERS
Provided they have enough money in their accounts, prisoners can subscribe to a number of magazines — but only those that have been approved by the prison. Even with magazines that have been given the green light, sometimes pages are removed if an article deals with violence, crime, prison life, escapes … or if it depicts nudity.
“Received a rejection notice for Interview, a magazine I get for free. The rejection was for nudity. Didn’t know they had nudity in it …”
Because of the detail surrounding McNair’s three escapes alone, this book — The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail — will not be on the approved reading list for prisoners at ADX Florence.
At various times, McNair has subscribed to The Week, Mother Earth News, Field & Stream, Wired, Rolling Stone, Log Home Living, Men’s Journal and Outdoor Life.
“Can’t understand how they can sell them so cheap. I got five magazines for a full year for $20. I realize there’s advertising, but just crazy. It must be about getting the numbers up for advertisers, huh?
“I subscribed to the ‘new and improved’ Christian Science Monitor. They offered a special deal: $13 for six months. No wonder they went broke. Okay, maybe not broke. Still not a fan of the new Christian Science Monitor. When it was a newspaper, it was a daily and a lot more in-depth.
Started receiving my Backpacker magazine last week. Many great pictures in it. Man, I enjoy reading that. If you dusted back-issues of Backpacker at libraries in Canada, you would see my paw prints all over them.
“When I created my Alaska driver’s license, I scanned a mountain scene from Backpacker, then ‘layered’ it on the driver’s license.
“The latest Backpacker is unreal. It is full of the best of boots, tents, sleeping bags, etc. Fun to read and dream.”
At ADX Florence, newspapers are passed from cell to cell …
“It is getting close to 8, had to stop and read the newspaper so the officer could pass it to the next cell. We get one USA Today for the tier and out of respect, some of us stop whatever we are doing, read it and pass it on. A couple of the guys tend to hold on to it until they get ready to read it. Gee, wonder who that would be? Interesting how if you are disrespectful in one area you tend to be across the board.
“By reading magazines and watching news magazine shows on TV, McNair maintains an interest in various subjects — and computers is one of them.
“Can you buy a copy of the day’s newspaper for your iPad? Wouldn’t that be something?Pass the news kiosk and see a USA Today story that catches your attention, so for $1 you buy a copy of the paper with just a few swipes of the finger on your iPad.
“The one that intrigues me is the Kindle. Download just about any book anywhere there is Wi-Fi or a 4G connection — in just seconds. They hold 1,000 books. That is so cool.”
RADIO: A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
“Just heard on the radio one of my acquaintances is not going to get the death penalty for killing another prisoner. So glad. He is one of those guys I would not ‘trip’ if he lived next door to my family.
“There is a difference between how a person has to live his life in prison, and how one would live his life on the streets.”
Another positive distraction for prisoners is to put on the headphones and crank up the radio to hear some tunes.
In a letter dated the 9th of February 2012, McNair comments on a local radio station:
“The classic rock station they pump into us from Colorado Springs either changed owners or format.
“They got rid of the two knuckleheads in the morning who spewed locker room ‘humor’ and other crap. They now play music in the morn. Get this — from 9 to noon — commercial free. Thank you 107.9.”
McNair is referring to KDZA-FM, ‘Colorado’s Legendary Classic Rock,’ Z 107.9.
“My favorite is on Sunday — old rock. Not a bad setup; no talk or commercials. Like an MP3 player.
“Dear Lord, who did we piss off today? Normally, on the Institution station on Tuesday, they play old music from the 1940s and 50s. Today they are playing disco! DISCO! Yeah, we must have done a bad thing.
“The worst is on Saturday … hip hop. I thought hip hop was like, dead.”
In a letter dated the 4th of June 2013, McNair penned a few lines of a song he heard on the radio that brought back memories of the day he was captured in Canada:
“Was listening yesterday to a song called Renegade [by STYX] and there is a line ‘Lawman finally got me, am so far from home.’ It had a line that made me think of Campbellton …”The actual lyrics: “Oh mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law; Lawman has put an end to my running and I’m so far from my home …” [© Almo Music Corp; Stygian Songs.]
Books can be borrowed from the prison library, but again only publications that are approved. Prisoners are given a list of books and they check off those they would like.
The books are delivered to their cells.
According to McNair, they’re allowed to check out two books a week and hold onto them for a couple of weeks.
“They passed out the new library list. A few decent books. Chinese Medicine really looks great. That went at the top of my list.
“They treat us good with our book selections. Received the new library list for the quarter. Looks good. A couple of ‘shrinkology’ books I’ll check out.”
“We can only have five books and magazines at a time in our cell. It’s a bitch if you have a Spanish dictionary, English and a research book (new American Desk Encyclopedia).
“It motivates me to read my magazines fast and toss them out. We can’t pass them on, which is a shame.
“Got a decent book this week. It is a college text book, Introduction to Personality by Walter Mischel. Just read another cool book from 1959, Trees. It is a book about the trees of North America. Has decent drawings of the trees and descriptions.
Am reading Tom Clancy’s Red Rabbit again. Read it about six years ago; I do enjoy his writing style.”
Other books from the prison library McNair has written about include Chinese Mythology by Anthony Christie; Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden; Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine; A History of Psychology by Horst Kachele; Scott Thybony’s book The Rockies: Pillars of a Continent; Trump: The Art of the Deal, and Building Your Vocabulary by Marvin Terban.
“Oooo … horripilation: the bristling or standing on end of a person’s hair when they are frightened. Yeah, I’ll be using that one. NOT!
“Did you know ‘to gonk’ is to lie or exaggerate, especially online?
I have to say that Wednesday is my fav day — get two new books and a magazine. Not tooo difficult to keep Ric content — books, magazines, some music and NO FREAKING HOLLERING!
“The other night I was ready to confess to my part in the Wikileaks deal. Waterboarding! Ha, that is child’s play compared to having to listen to numbskull — —. Hell, I don’t even know what to equate it to.”
Like all prisons, there are restrictions on what inmates can have in their cells. At ADX Florence, prisoners are allowed to have a number of things including photographs, writing materials, and wall calendars.
During the time I’ve been writing to Richard McNair, a dozen of my letters have been returned by the prison — for requesting details of one of McNair’s escapes … or mentioning the name of another prisoner. Apparently, these are no-no’s.
The mailroom will sometimes remove the offending page and pass the rest of the letter to McNair but occasionally the entire letter is sent back. When that happens, both McNair and I get identical memos from prison officials explaining why the correspondence was rejected.
Some of the reasons include: “It contains information from an incarcerated individual; it discusses an incarcerated individual; Google Maps; contains information about the inmate escape; matter [a printed article from the Internet] which depicts, describes or encourages activities which may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption.”
Prison Form BP-S328.058 has a checklist of why material may be returned: stamps, cash or money-orders to be given to inmates; body hair; plant shavings and sexually-explicit personal photos.
“Byron, can you go through the letter that got sent back and delete the parts about escapes. That is why they rejected it.
“Are you starting to feel like Job? That is the prisoner’s favorite book in the Bible. For they too suffer, you know, with racial profiling and all.
“We sure didn’t do good with the mail this past week. Two rejections. What are you putting in your letters? Plans for a gyrocopter? Take it easy out there.
“Simply redact the offensive sections and re-mail.”
The letters were rejected because they contained photographs of the railroad tracks McNair walked down after he escaped from USP Pollock. Ditto with photos of the waste treatment plant he broke into near the prison.
It was the same deal with satellite images and road maps, although, in the beginning, those images were getting in. In our early letters, McNair not only got to see the satellite images I’d mailed, he made notations on them and mailed them back.
A feature story I mailed Richard McNair [from the October 9, 2006, edition of The New Yorker] was rejected for two reasons: “It was determined detrimental to the security, good order or discipline of the institution” … or that it might facilitate criminal activity — and — “It was not received from the publisher, a book club, or a bookstore.”
The story, by Mark Singer, was written when McNair was still on the lam.
McNair seems to be able to write about his own escapes — but I cannot provide him with details of his escapes. The prisoner has mailed me a number of hand-drawn maps, complete with a play-by-play account of how things went down.
Richard McNair has also had some of his letters rejected by his mailroom with instructions from staff to delete certain parts.
“Got back two envelopes — due to ‘security and orderly running of institution.’ I took the stuff out.”
I compensate Richard McNair for his postage and writing materials. In my initial correspondence to him, in the fall of 2008, I stuffed three one-dollar bills in the envelope.
The prison promptly sent the money back with a note explaining that any money for a federal inmate must be sent by money order to the prisoner’s ‘account’ in Des Moines, Iowa.
MORE ODDS AND ENDS
“No mail last night because of the Native’s favorite holiday — Columbus Day. I see this is your Thanksgiving.
“When is Boxer Day?”
Boxing Day — a federal holiday in Canada — is the 26th of December.
It’s a huge shopping event north of the border. ‘Bargains galore.’
In spite of the tight security, correspondence from Richard McNair can sometimes be lighthearted. This one got through:
“Things are okay here. I hear we are going to get to hunt Easter Eggs. Right after Hell freezes over!
“Was going to make another comment but they might hold the letter as a security issue.
“Gee, some people have no humor. I ‘called’ the officer on the phone and asked if I could run this down the street to the mailbox on the corner. Now I is ‘4-pointed’ on the bunk. Don’t even ask how I am writing this. Just kidding. We don’t have a phone.
“There are just a few sheets left. I’ll have you know my writing hand is just numb. Do your finger tips get numb or bruised from keying?
“Here is what I have learned, young grasshopper: composting creates some heat. Several times, my saved lettuce was a bit wilted and when I pick it up — in a bag — I can feel the heat it is giving off.
“I read that people have rigged pipes through a compost pit to collect that heat. They use it to warm a barn or shed. Granted, you are not going to get many BTUs, but it can warm the pad under a cow or a chicken coop. Just neat stuff.
“I cringe having to throw away paper every other day. See, if they would just replace our TVs with iPads! God, the politicians would go apeshit over that.
“Not much more to write. Boring here, but that is a good thing. Glad the book is coming along. Too bad I’ll never get to read the thing.”
In the summer of 2009, David Billingham, Office Manager of The Tribune in Campbellton, mailed Richard McNair his newspaper’s six-part series on the U.S. fugitive, titled The Running Man. Everything was sent back.
Enclosed in the envelope was a memo: “The publication has been rejected because pages contain information on methods of escape and how to avoid capture.”
Prisoners at ADX Florence can take educational courses on subjects ranging from parenting to the Universe. They do not have to leave their cells to attend class because the programs are shown on closed-circuit television.
The Executive Assistant at ADX indicates the courses are all about self-improvement. Mark Collins says the idea is to develop ‘strong values and skill sets’ to become law-abiding citizens when they’re released back into society.
McNair muses that by taking classes, inmates show they are programming and not just ‘wasting away’ in their cells.
The courses do not lead to college credits.
“We watch videos for a few weeks, writing a three or four-page essay each week. Some of the classes offered have been Planet Earth; Great Ideas of Psychology; Aging; Stress Management and Ethics.
“I’ve also taken a class called The Universe, one of the best. It was a 12-week course.
“Each week you get an open TV test. As you watch the program, you answer the questions.
“The new class on America at War is really good. Had the first video on Wednesday and some very interesting stuff on WW1. I’m going to enjoy this 10-week class.
“The only country that can beat us in having wars is Britain. The only reason is, their country is like nine times older than ours. Give us time.”
McNair offers these comments about other courses at the Supermax:
“The best class has been The Heart and Chi. I certainly believe we can self-heal. This is what the classes shared.
“I took a class over the Education TV Channel from the ‘Shrinkology Department’ called The Brain, and guess where it was from? The program, not the brain. Canada! A bunch of funny-sounding people from Toronto. Most of the program dealt with how hormones affect the sex of the brain. Crazy stuff.
“Started a psychology class. Really good, though four hours of lecture yesterday alone. Took notes big time. My hand hurt! Lucky my pisser and TV are in the same room.
‘Origin of the Modern Mind’ is very heavy into Aristotle, Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus, to name a few. A lot on how the church dealt with these ‘problem thinkers.’
“The lecture today for shrinkology was amazing. The subject was a physicist, Wolfgang Pauli — who passed away on December 19, 1958, [Author: the same day Richard McNair was born]. I am not much on reincarnation, but whoa. Wolfgang studied the relationship of physics and Chinese culture, mythology. If I was the recipient of his soul, that would explain a lot. He was only 58 when he passed. Just a fascinating lecture.
“Wolfgang felt that to be a proper physicist he needed to repress his feelings of love, etc. Not going to retell the lecture, but his dreams led him to the opposite conclusion. Man, I love learning.”
Religious programs are also shown on the institution’s closed-circuit television channel.
The Supermax does not have a chapel. According to Mark Collins, if inmates so want, religious staff can visit them in their cells.
Starting in May 2010, Richard McNair was allowed to make one 15-minute phone call per month — but only to people on an approved list.
How it works is that a guard brings a telephone to his cell, a connection is made, the guard closes the door and leaves.
The calls are monitored and end exactly at 15 minutes, with a two-minute recorded warning the call is from a federal prison .
The telephone calls made by inmates illustrate the super tight security at ADX Florence.
“Have to first activate my voice recording. It matches my voice when I call so they know it is me.”
If McNair has a bad cold, his voice may not be recognized and the call might not go through.
McNair can either pay for the call with money from his account or he can phone someone on his list who has a special prepaid phone account set up through a private company. Prisons are good business.
Richard McNair’s first call from the Supermax, in May 2011, was to his mother in Oklahoma. His second call, in June of that year, was to his father. I received his third, on the 20th of August. All 2011.
In a letter, McNair cautioned me not to discuss certain topics: his escape from Pollock, prison security, etc. — or our call would be terminated without warning.
“Byron, we will have to be so disciplined when we talk. I don’t believe we will be able to talk about anything related to the book without risking the call.
"They have no problem ending a call.”
Nothing like that happened, even though the ‘E’ word [escape] was mentioned a couple of times. How could it not?
After 15 minutes of questions and answers, the line went dead.
“At least they brought the phone at dinner so the idiots were stuffing their faces instead of screaming. Good job, staff.
"Money on the account for phone calls out is a heck of a lot cheaper than collect calls. Next door, [the ‘regular’ federal prison at Florence where McNair was held from 2001 to 2005], a prepaid call was about $3.80 for 15 minutes versus $8 collect.
"The feds are way cheaper than state prisons. At Oak Park Heights in Minnesota, a prepaid call was about $8 and collect was $15. The states are nasty about sticking it to families and prisoners. I had lost canteen, phone and visiting for five years.
"At Florence, all visiting is through the glass (non-contact), but the Hearing Officer gave me back my visits. I excitedly informed my family.
"A couple of months after I arrived at ADX Florence, my family called the prison and made an appointment to visit. They drove from Oklahoma, processed in to the prison, started down the hall to the visiting room and then were told ooops, Richard McNair cannot have visits.
"Talk about devastated. Them and me. In spite of what I was promised in Louisiana, there was nothing in my file about being given my visits back. I wrote three letters to officials at USP Pollock. No response.
"How about those apples? Can you say payback?
"I overheard a conversation on the weekend between a new guy and a couple of other prisoners. All three had stabbed other inmates. Not one got more time in the Control Unit than me! The only guy so far I have heard who got more time than me got 10 years for trying to kill an officer. That is crazy.
"It just pisses me off that I didn’t hurt anyone physically, didn’t take anyone hostage, didn’t do anything even close to violent — and I get 60-plus months in the Control Unit. It does not make sense.”
In a letter dated 23 of July 2013, McNair again mentions his frustration at his spending so much time in the Control Unit.
“One of the Taliban wannabes left last week. He was one of those who yelled the Koran lessons for hours. Byron, he got here way after me and is gone before me. Over and over I have seen that. Am the last one on the tier from when I got here. Does that make sense?
"In other words, everyone else is gone and many who came after me are gone. That sure works on me.
"While you were in Louisiana, did anyone share with you all the mistakes [USP] Pollock made?
"I had a lot going in my favor.”
In the fall of 2010, I had dropped by USP Pollock for information about McNair’s escape -- and the punishment he got for the escape.
The prison’s Public Information Officer, Ron Martinez, refused to discuss the matter. He also declined to talk about disciplinary action taken against staff that had screwed up.
I then asked for permission to see the warehouse located on prison property, where McNair ended up with a shipment of mail bags in April 2006. Again, no.
“You realize, Ron,” I said, “it’s harder to get into your prison than it is to get out.” He smiled.
At the 'Alcatraz of the Rockies,' inmates get free medical care and other services ...
“What a couple of days. For a place that is boring, this has been like ‘hectic’ for me. I changed cells, then went around the corner and got my hair chopped. Got me a buzz cut; two years of growth hit the floor. It feels so good.
"Just got ‘breathalyzed.’ They have a little handheld unit and do random alcohol and drug tests.
"They came and took my DNA last week. That is the government’s program to take DNA from all incarcerated with a violent history. Am in favor of that. It started as a State program. Guess what? Police solved 16% of outstanding sexual assaults. Guess who were the majority of assailants identified through the program? Home burglars. Officials think it is a crime of opportunity. A few of these guys were close to getting released for their original crime. The results came back and a deputy was at the front gate waiting for their sorry ass.
"Went to medical today for x-rays of the head — my sinus infection. While waiting to get cleared with my multi-staff escort, we were in a corridor, and guess what? It was way louder in the corridor than on the ranges. What I suspect happens is all that screaming on the ranges gets funneled to that corridor.
"Am on the super-duper antibiotics right now. They are kicking my arse; flashes, headaches, blurred vision, sour stomach, joint aches ... and I can’t crap. It has to be working huh? I just want this sinus infection to end. This round of meds is Sulfamethoxazole-Trimeth. I feel cheated — the name on the other round was longer. I figure the stronger the dose, the longer the name. It is the same stuff, just stronger doses.
"One of the things they gave me for my hemorrhoids is a wipe with ‘witch hazel.’ Amazing stuff. If you are ever bored, you could print out something about it and why it works. Ooooo, so soothing. My little desktop encyclopedia just says it is a brush with medicinal uses.
"Have you tried acupuncture? Does your medical plan cover it? For pain, I can understand how acupuncture works — but high blood pressure, that baffles me. You can block pain with pressure points. Toothache — the web of the thumb, headache — the temples. But blood pressure?
"Have not had a flu shot in more than 6 years. Had to sign my life away to medical when I refused the shot! Have seen people take the shot and get sick as can be. Will just keep working out, eat right and wash the heck out of my hands.”
MY VISIT TO ADX - A 'FAIL'
I traveled to Colorado in late 2010 with the hope of meeting Richard McNair, albeit behind thick glass. Months earlier, I’d mailed the visitor’s form, properly completed and triple-checked.
I pulled into Florence late at night and checked into a motel just a mile down the road from the pen. From my second floor window, I could see the sprawling prison complex, well lit by the same security lights McNair had described in his letters. “I’m that close,” I said to myself.
The Super 8 is where folks stay when they visit relatives imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Complex.
F.B.I. agents book rooms there as well. Makes for hushed conversations over breakfast.
Before I took off to see McNair, motel manager Carol Stires had a gentle warning: “When you pull up to the main gate,” she said, “make sure your car is empty.” Then she explained why. “When one of our guests tried to visit a prisoner, guards discovered a rifle in the bed of his truck. The guard asked, ‘what are you doing here with that?’” Legitimate question, all things considered. “The guy explained he’d been out bird-hunting.” How To Cancel Prison Visits 101.
After hearing that story, I took everything out of my rental. I mean everything. Armed with nothing but a driver’s license, notepad, two pens and a cell phone, I headed out to the Supermax. I could soon ask Richard McNair questions and not have to wait a month and half for answers.
Alas, the visit was not allowed. Turns out, no record of my paperwork could be found. Hmmm. “Sorry for coming all the way down from Canada,” one staffer said on the phone.
I returned to my car in the parking lot next to the ADX reception building, feeling a little empty myself, only to be startled by the rapid fire of assault rifles nearby.
Guards were practicing their marksmanship. Then again, maybe it was a hint I should get out of Dodge.
McNair came up with his own ‘plan’ to get me into the joint:
“You could always start your own church. Just kidding. It seems religions have the run in prisons.”
After driving the twisting, paved road through the prison complex, I signed out at the main gate and thanked the guards for their time. They’d been polite and professional.
Shucks. My planned get-together with McNair had gone south. I headed south too.
After picking up my camera at the motel — hey, time for another plug: the Super 8 Motel — I made my way up Siloam Road [Colorado Road 19], just south of the Supermax. When I got to the top of the hill I snapped pictures of the sprawling complex.
While waiting at the registration desk at ADX Florence, I had thoughts of interviewing former bankers and investors who had looted billions of dollars — criminal acts so huge and greed so obscene it brought the world economy to its knees.
Squirreled away at the Supermax, I’m sure, would be a hedge-fund manager or two, perhaps even a politician who’d turned a blind eye to it all.
REFLECTION & HOPE
A philosophical Richard McNair has the last word about his dramatic escape from a Louisiana penitentiary in 2006:
“A lot good did come from my vacation. Glenn Belgard was made ‘Marshal of the Year.’ The R.C.M.P. got to hand out some ‘atta-boys.’
"And I got to meet you. Not bad.”
It’s not known how much time Richard McNair has to serve before he gets a shot at parole. According to a Progress Report from USP Florence dated the 1st of September 2003, the projected release for prisoner Richard Lee McNair reads: ‘Unknown.’
As of the 20th of June 2013, the Bureau of Prisons Website simply lists prisoner McNair’s release date as ‘STATE PRIS.’
“What happens after my term in the Control Unit? I could go to another prison, such as the one next door, or simply be walked to what they refer to as ‘General Population’ at ADX. Not much different from this place; but no leg irons and not all the strip searches.”
In a letter dated 25th of April 2013, Richard McNair writes about his current status, wondering where he could be moved when his time in the Control Unit is up.
“Their main options are 'State Placement' (send me back to North Dakota), ‘down the hall,’ to a step-down program ... or to an open compound (a regular pen). A step-down program is more for gang members. It is to see how you interact with others.
"Had team [meeting with his case worker] on Tuesday [23rd of April 2013]. Five months to go. One of the surprises: was informed would be going to executive panel in May or June. Ex-panel is made up of administration big wigs, along with the regional director out of Kansas City. Strange it would be 150 days before. At least two times normal. Ex-panel should give me an idea what they have in store.”
McNair’s letter, dated the 8th of May 2013, was upbeat. That’s because prisoners in the Control Unit had just received new televisions.
“We got new TV’s this morn! NO BUZZING. All the old TV’s had a buzz that could drive one bonkers. And it has stereo. Dear Lord to hear music in stereo. The difference is unreal. To see things on TV in color and clear. For five years I’ve had no color TV, no stereo and a buzz. While the rest of the world moved to HDTV, we were still in the B/W analog game.
"The TV is a little thing made by Skyworth. The picture is very good, but the knuckleheads are whining that when they move around the cell the picture deteriorates. Are you kidding me? I am just glad to have a TV that is all there and in color. They told us we are responsible for the TV and it moves with us. YESSSS! For the next five months I will baby that TV and it will look brand new when the next guy gets it.
"I am giggling (yes, big bad Supermax guys giggle) about the sound quality. STEREO and no buzz. Remember how you had to purchase a filter for your old 60s and 70s model cars because otherwise as you increase the RPM you would get a buzzing in the radio? Well, that is similar to the buzz the old TVs had.
"Oh yeah, another thing, the picture is not scrunched up on the broadcast channels. To make the digital picture fit on the analog screen the stations scrunched the picture. People looked goofy and you could not see all the picture.”
"There is one man who remains unforgiving about the 1987 shootings in Minot. He is not a police officer, a judge, a case worker nor the U.S. Marshal who tracked the escaped killer for a year and half.
"Don’t make me out to be something I am not. I am guilty. I am a murderer, and I tried to kill Mr. Kitzman. If we do a book, I want to be raked over the coals. The book needs to as honest as can be.”
In the 3,000+ pages Richard Lee McNair has written from his cell at the Supermax, he has provided far more than just the ‘inside story’ of three breakouts and his time on the lam.
After a number of requests, McNair finally wrote about the deadly shooting a quarter of a century ago. In letters and now phone calls, the former Airman has repeatedly expressed remorse for the 1987 shootings.
Is he sincere? Only Richard McNair and God know for sure. You make the call.
“I can see where people are cynical when it comes to prisoners declaring remorse. How many find God when they come to prison only to lose Him when they hit the streets again. Or how many sex offenders get the cure.
"Hell, I am cynical when it comes to prisoners showing remorse. Have had a lot of ‘yeah right’ moments.”
Richard McNair has opened up about his upbringing in Oklahoma, old friends and some of his role models — whether in uniform or people on the streets. As I was putting this book together, the thought occurred that not only had law enforcement been trying to find the fugitive, McNair was trying to find himself.
Then again, perhaps that applies to us all.
How does an intelligent, industrious child from a typical Midwestern family go so terribly wrong? I don’t know the answer. I’ll leave that for criminologists and psychologists to ponder.“Many days I have laid on my bunk and wondered what happened to that happy little boy to propel him into an angry and violent man — an anger that seethed below the surface for many years. To this day I have no clue where that anger came from and yes, initially in hindsight I blamed everyone else for my anger — everyone but me."
Some, like Sheriff Vern Erck in North Dakota, wonder if Richard McNair was a thrill seeker who was “wired” differently. Instead of climbing mountains or jumping out of airplanes, Erck said, McNair went to the dark side, getting his kicks from break-ins, carrying a firearm — and when surprised and ticked off, blasted away. Is that the answer?
Or, was his violent behavior that night the result of some misplaced anger? I don’t know the answer.
“I am a convicted murderer. Hopefully, people who matter see that I have turned my anger from uncontrolled outbursts to, I don’t know, a controlled ability to work it out. I realize many people would say, ‘Oh yeah, he proved that by escaping and doing break-ins.’ That is true and deserved.
"While on the run it was my intention not to hurt anyone physically. By that I mean, not put my hands on them. I realize people were frightened, lost their jobs, lost property, etc. I apologize for that. No excuses.”
I wrote McNair that no single act — good or bad — defines a person. I put it to him this way: if I were to donate my life savings to charity, it wouldn’t necessarily make me a good man. One night of evil doesn’t necessarily define one’s true character either, although a murder in cold blood is one scar that’ll never go away.
In the eyes of many, Richard McNair’s violent rampage a quarter of a century ago will forever define him. He’s a murderer. The life of an innocent man was snuffed out. Jerry Thies’ killer should pay an appropriate price — a penalty to be determined by the state and the courts. If the price is death, so be it. If it’s a 20-year prison sentence, so be it.
All would agree that Richard Lee McNair should serve his time. Has federal prisoner #13829.045 paid his debt to society? That’s a question I cannot answer. Perhaps that is why God made parole boards.
In early 2010, I wrote to McNair with the news that his shooting rampage in Minot may have claimed two lives, not one. I explained the other victim was the younger brother of the man he murdered. James Thies was so stressed — not only about the killing — but the killer’s break-out in the fall of 1992 that he died of a heart attack within weeks of the escape.
McNair wrote back:
“Just received your 14 February  letter. The biggest impact was your sharing about Mr. Thies’ family. This letter is the most profound thing anyone has ever done for me. Thank you. You have truly had a strong influence on me.”
"Byron, I cried when I read about Jerome Thies’ brother. Don’t quit writing about such things. I need to hear these, as they keep me aware of what my actions have done. At times I get feeling sorry for my situation, and when I hear what repercussions occurred from my senseless acts — thank you for that.
"I now understand how victims meeting with their assailants can change a criminal, even if it is only through the mail.
"While going through group [therapy], the facilitators continuously told us to think of all our victims — the victim, their family and friends and of course our family and friends. Yes, I understood this to some extent and my actions.
"I know any words I try to share with the Thies family sound hollow and self-serving, but I am truly sorry for all I have done to them. I now realize that even my escapes most likely opened old wounds for them. Please let the Thies family know how truly sorry I am.
"Even as horrendous as I realized my actions were, what I learned today placed those actions in a new light. I have to look at what I have done and rethink everything. Feeling sorry for myself is something I can never do again. I brought this on myself, and it is time to take a step back and look at the whole picture.
"Even in the small amount of info you have shared, drives this home like a hammer. Thank you. This is the letter I will read when I start feeling sorry for myself and my situation.”
A year or so later, McNair wrote:
“I know I have answered this letter before, but it keeps my attention. This is the one with the crime scene photos, your talks with Mr. Kitzman, Sheriff Vern Erck and the death of Mr. Thies’ brother. I have to admit this letter has affected me tremendously. I read it and wonder what right do I have to seek parole? The damage I did. How sorry a piece of crap I was. No human has the right to do what I did.
"I appreciate your letters very much. You have absolutely had an impact on me. Also not compromising your ethics. You are your own man, and there ain’t a whole lot of those anymore.”
I have not shared this information with members of the Thies family. Their pain must still run deep, even with the passage of time. If they read this book, they can see and judge for themselves what Richard McNair has written. It is not my purpose to sway their opinion — or anyone’s opinion.
“The anger those two families have — I can’t imagine. All the people my action hit: the victim’s families, my family, my girlfriend, friends, the people I worked with at the Air Base, the people who worked at or had to visit the grain elevator, law enforcement, the nurses who treated Mr. Kitzman, on and on."Mr. Kitzman mentioned to you he had nightmares [of the shooting]. I can only imagine the look on my face as I stood over him — the deranged look of anger. To think this man overcame his nightmares, went back to work and went on with his life. He is very strong, stronger than me — I kept trying to avoid my punishment.
"Thank you, Byron for sending me this letter, I am sure you contemplated doing so. Thank you.
"What has changed? Much counseling and good people taking an interest in me and helping me find some insights. What has amazed me the most is how corrections staff and even some law enforcement have taken the time to help me understand some of my mistakes, even point out my qualities.”
In Richard Lee McNair’s very first letter, dated the 15th of December 2008, he asked, “Who do you write for, or do you freelance? Is crime and psychology your beat?” I responded that my reporting beat was crime, not psychology.
I felt he was probing and so I replied that for some time, someone has wanted to know what makes Richard Lee McNair tick. And that person is Richard Lee McNair.
And so began an exchange of letters.
SO LONG CONTROL UNIT
In early September 2013, Richard McNair was moved from the highly restrictive Control Unit to the Special Handling Unit, commonly known as the SHU, still at ADX Florence.
The prisoner went from wearing tank tops and sweat pants to an orange jumpsuit. McNair was also given more privileges, including exercise time ... and more contact with other prisoners.
But the noise remained. On the 19th of September 2013, he wrote:
“Moved yesterday to another area of the hole. Last night you could hear a pin drop it was so quiet. During the day it was another matter. Here is a running dialog of the two guys:
"‘You’s a rat! (scream)’ ‘Oh I is a rat?’ ‘Not only you’s a rat, you a rat bitch.’ Then it broke down into sexual crap.
"At 2 p.m. they were still going at it, and it went non-stop until dinner. Then, as if the work day whistle sounded, they called it quits for the night. At about 8 this morning, right back at it.
"We can only pray that one or both are slated to go to the Mental Health Unit [in Atlanta]. Byron, so many of these guys are mental. It is like being in a mental asylum for really dangerous guys.
"One of the inmates (info worth about 5 cents) drain-piped that they are going to quit selling hot sauce and spices. If true, then that means some piece-of-crap threw hot sauce in a C.O.’s [correctional officer’s] face. Crazy that we too get punished for the actions of a few. Sort of like being on the streets.”
"Am in 12-cell, upper B Range. Upper is where I spent five years [in the Control Unit]. Being on the upper tier prevents some idiot from flooding you out.
"The cell has no concrete desk or shelf. The windows had been broke out, so a mess to clean up. Someone did a number on this cell. How one can break a concrete shelf/desk top that is at least 4” thick is beyond me.
"What else? One of the idiots is now screaming over and over ‘shut up!’ My sentiments exactly.
"Can you believe these guys throw piss and crap on one another?”
Yup. It’s known as ‘shit-bombing.’ Inmates put urine and feces into a plastic bottle, leave the cap off, aim the bottle at someone they don’t especially care for, then step hard on it. Splat!!
On the 19th of September 2013, Richard Lee McNair was finally moved to General Population. Here’s how he put it:
“And then God said, ‘Ric has been through enough crap.’ In the 6th year it was great!
"Byron, are you sitting down? They moved me to G.P. and I don’t mean just any general population — the best. Don’t know whose butt I gotta kiss, but this is unreal.
"Am in D Unit, and it is in the high-security section. Only eight guys in this area. Me and seven others.
"It is so quiet. I mean funeral home quiet. These dudes are the real deal. So respectful and no games. Am in Heaven. After almost six years of crap, this is unreal. Have not had to wear earplugs one time. A funny. It was sooo quiet last night I could not sleep. Kid you not. Could not figure out the problem, and then turned the music on real low. Slept then.
"The hot water is HOT! Tea bags actually seep. I told my neighbor — yes I drain-piped — you have no idea how good you have it. These guys have no communication at all with other areas.
"We don’t go to a regular recreation area, we are separate and it is sooo clean. No snot on the walls or spit on the floor. Six years to get this. The indoor rec cages are smaller, but who cares?
"The newspaper is all there! Am in 6-cell and got Thursday’s paper on Thursday. Have not seen Friday’s paper yet, but bet it is all there.
"When the officers came to my cell in the SHU to pick up my dinner tray, they gave me trash bags. I said, ‘what are these for?’ They said, ‘you are moving.” I figured [moving] to another cell in the hole. They said, ‘to G.P.’
"What a blessing. Thank you, Guardian Angel.”
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