The attorney general of the United States and Colorado lawmakers toured the Supermax prison in Florence after local and national prison officials said correctional facilities have become much more dangerous.
The Supermax prison is home to some of the nation's most violent and disruptive inmates. On Wednesday, Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar were joined by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who said while the facility is secure, it could be improved.
"I asked him to come to Colorado and told him what the concerns were," Salazar said. "I hope he has an agenda today showing us how he's taking care of those concerns," said Salazar.
"We learned that there have been steps taken in response to the concerns raised by Senator Salazar and Senator Allard," Gonzales said. "There has been additional staffing. We've got additional technology in place."
Gonzalez said while there has been progress and changes have taken place at the prison, more work needs to be done in the future.
"We've provided additional tools to deal with the concern about perimeter fencing. We have not yet resolved the question of perimeter fencing as to whether or not that's something that is appropriate here," Gonzales said. "There will be some additional discussions about that."
Gonzalez stressed that safety and security are his paramount concerns, not just for Supermax, but for the surrounding communities.
For several years officials have been trying to bring attention to what they believe are serious problems inside the facility.
Critics of the Federal Bureau of Prison said staffing cuts at Supermax and other prisons have led to more dangers and less security for those who live and work there.
"We're incarcerating at such an extreme rate that we forget there's a cost to incarceration, and we need staff. It's that simple," Rep. Buffie McFadyen said.
John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the problems at Supermax are present at all the nation's more than 100 federal penitentiaries.
"We just have a bad situation going on inside our prisons," said Gage, who came to Florence to accompany Gonzales on the tour. "We need a comprehensive look at this. Some of these management procedures have been to run the prisons really on the cheap. It's time right now that we correct this."
Gage said prison officers are not asking for more money but for enough officers to keep a safe grip on the facility.
"More assaults on correctional officers, more assaults on inmates, more shots taken from the tower," he said. "A general deterioration within our prisons, and it has to stop."
Supermax, 90 miles southwest of Denver, houses 474 of the nation's most notorious convicts, including Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Security at the 490-bed prison, built in 1994 at a cost of $60 million, has been under scrutiny for months. Last year, an arbitrator found staffing levels had made the facility more dangerous, with some shifts going unfilled. In September, a Justice Department report criticized the prison for not properly screening mail and other communications.
The Justice Department said all mail and phone calls to and from inmates labeled as terrorists have been monitored since October, and perimeter security has been beefed up.
In the last few months, several dozen guards have been hired, but at the cost, union officials said, of two other prisons nearby.
"The ADX is getting additional staff from them to make their numbers look like their staffing levels are up," said Council of Prison Locals president Bryan Lowry.
"This is an ongoing process," Gonzales said. "This tour has been completed, and the fact that we're done, doesn't mean we're done with this."
Salazar said he was happy the spotlight was on Florence for Wednesday, but that much more needs to be done.
The Department of Justice said 327 staffers work at Supermax and that 92 percent of the authorized positions there are filled. The ratio of inmates to staff is 1.5-to-1, the department said.
Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin, who accompanied Gonzales the tour, said Supermax staffing is higher than it was five years ago.
"We believe we can safety manage this facility with the current number of inmates and the current procedures with the staffing that we have," he said.
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