Highway 50 runs straight as a pool cue from Pueblo, Colo., through 23 miles of rangeland and piñon flats before offering an exit to the scruffy little city of Florence (pop. 3,795). Like Flint, Mich., or Orlando, Fla., Florence is a company town. The industry here is prisoners, and the company is the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Twenty years ago, the people of surrounding Fremont County ponied up $160,000 to buy some open land outside Florence, hoping to entice the bureau to build a prison complex as a way to boost the town's economy. Corrections had long been a mainstay in Fremont County; the high desert valley was already home to more than half a dozen prisons. But in the end, Florence got a little more than it bargained for.
The 600-acre Federal Correctional Complex, which was completed in 1994 on the outskirts of town, is a virtual theme park of penal experiences, ranging from a minimum-security camp for inside-traders and small-time pot dealers to the concrete fortress that was built to be the most secure prison in the country: the Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary, or ADX for short. The inmates in ADX Florence include drug kingpins, gang leaders, hit men, snipers and, lately, more and more, international terrorists, including al-Qaeda shoe bomber Richard Reid; mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing Ramzi Yousef and at least seven of his accomplices; and four men convicted of involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. There are American terrorists too. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, spent time there before being transferred to Indiana, where he was executed in 2001. His accomplice, Terry Nichols, is still at ADX, as is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. The common thread running through the crimes committed by these men accounts for the nickname given to the highest-security section of the prison: Bombers Row.
Until now, almost nothing has been written about the inner workings of the ADX. Since 9/11, journalists have been routinely denied access to the facility, its staff and inmates. But Eric Robert Rudolph, who is serving life without parole at the prison for the fatal bombings at the Atlanta Olympics and an abortion clinic in Alabama, has written letters to me, the author of a book about his case, and to his mother Patricia Rudolph, who has shared them with me. These missives offer a unique first-hand account of life on Bombers Row.
"It is Ramadan now and the Muslims are fasting," Rudolph wrote in the fall of 2005, three months after he arrived at ADX. "The call to prayer echoes through the halls five times a day giving this place a decidedly otherworldly feel." Although the inmates are isolated in gloomy one-man cells the size of a small bathroom at least 23 hours a day, their chambers aren't soundproof. In fact, the prison is noisy. Rudolph's housing unit resonates with the constant mechanical whir and clank of electronic gates, punctuated by the sound of inmates praying, wailing and shouting conversations in English and Arabic through the walls and vents between their cells.