Shackled Justice: Florence Federal Penitentiary and the New Politics of Punishment

Article excerpt

"All of us share a common curse," bemoaned President Clinton as he urged the passage of his fledgling crime bill. "In the most wonderful country in the world, we have the highest violent crime rate, the largest percentage of our people behind bars" (Denver Post, April 15, 1994). As with other U.S. leaders, however, the "New Democrat" president could not be expected to address the fundamental social fissures that simultaneously foster a terrifying plague of violence while building an increasingly policed and criminalized society. Instead, Clinton's quizzical solution to crime and excessive incarceration, as he defines them, has been a retrenchment of the preceding regime - marginalizing still broader sectors of U.S. society and expanding the state's powers of coercion to control those subsequently labeled as criminal.

The overarching effects of this law-and-order strategy toward governance have already been catastrophic. The U.S. imprisons some 560 of every 100,000 citizens and the proportion increases each year (New York Times, October 28, 1994). While critiquing the broad impacts of an increasingly punitive state, however, it is also important to analyze its localized manifestations. It is crucial to study not only the social and political forces behind the new politics of punishment, but also their smaller-scale and largely autonomous institutions. The billions Congress and state legislatures allocate to law enforcement and incarceration create and maintain individual penal institutions, from local jails to federal prisons, each caught within the matrix of the dominant social order. Together they profoundly control the lives of more than 1.5 million individuals, yet they are largely hidden from public view and critique (New York Times, October 28, 1994). One such institution is the newly opened control-unit prison in Florence, Colorado.

The new supermaximum-security prison is actually one of four facilities, which together make up the largest federal prison complex in the United States. When completely filled in early 1995, the entire "campus" will incarcerate some 3,000 inmates in four institutions: a minimum-security federal prison camp, a medium-security federal correctional institution (FCI), a maximum-security United States penitentiary, and an administrative-maximum, control-unit prison (ADX).

It has been an economic boon for economically depressed central Colorado and the prison promises 750 permanent jobs to this small, rural community. Florence has been long strapped by factory layoffs and throughout the 1980s most local families earned less than $15,000 a year (O'Keeffe, 1991a: 1; Bureau of Prisons, 1989: II-40). Already accustomed to a number of state prisons in the area, the town lobbied hard for the complex. A local newspaper poll found 97% support for the project, and despite the area's meager resources, Florence pulled together an attractive incentives package (O'Keeffe, 1991a: 1). Local citizens held bake sales and sold T-shirts, raising $128,000 to purchase land for the economy-boosting site (Denver Post, May 17, 1991). It is not often that a community asks for a prison to be built next door, and as the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) scrambled to contain a soaring prison population, it eventually accepted their offer. Construction of the $222 million compound began in 1990 (Denver Post, October 27, 1994). Today Florence's Fremont county boasts the highest concentration of inmates in the United States.

While prison officials and local residents found a convergence of interests in Florence, prisoners and their advocates are not nearly as enthusiastic. Activists for human rights and social justice are especially concerned about the ADX control unit, slotted to become the highest security and most regimented prison in the United States. The Bureau of Prisons designed Florence as a high-tech replacement for its infamous lock-down prison in Marion, Illinois. After a decade of stinging lawsuits and public protest there, the prisoncrats promised a kinder, gentler supermaximum prison in Florence. …