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Crime & Justice

A look at Jared Loughner's probable new home: The federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo.

Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Left) shakes hands with Senator Dick Durbin.
Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Left) shakes hands with Senator Dick Durbin.
Office of Senator Dick Durbin

Jared Loughner pleaded guilty Tuesday after being found mentally competent in connection with the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and wounded former Rep. Gabriel Giffords.

He'll likely find himself serving life in prison among the country's most notorious criminals in the federal supermax in Florence, Colo. Loughner was also sent to the prison for mental health evaluations earlier in his case. 

Florence ADX is known as the most secure, restricted prison in the country. It houses, among others, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The environment there has been characterized as harsh. During Moussaoui's sentencing trial, a prison expert testified that inmates in the supermax essentially "rot" over time. The prison, he said, was designed for incapacitation and nothing else. 

Florence ADX — along with California's Pelican Bay State Prison, another highly restrictive prison— has been at the center of controversy over whether or not the United State should permit solitary confinement in its prisons. 

Federal officials have acknowledged that inmates have trouble mentally surviving the isolation.

In a recent letter obtained by the Atlantic magazine, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels urged inmates at the federal supermax in Florence to "not lose hope."

There are semantic debates over whether what happens in places like Florence and Pelican Bay constitutes "solitary confinement," but it's generally agreed that the prisons isolate inmates to a high degree, either for their own safety or for the safety of the general prison population and staff.

In Florence, inmates generally spend 23 hours a day in their cells and exercise in a concrete, enclosed courtyard known as a "dog run." Inmates receive meals through a slot in the door. 

Some, including activists and academics, have argued that such conditions lead to mental health problems. A lawsuit filed earlier this summer in federal court particularly focuses on how prisoners with mental health needs are treated in the prison. (For more on this, see the case of Jose Martin Vega, who committed suicide in custody.) 

Samuels' letter, dated July 20 and obtained by media this week, directly asks inmates in the federal supermax to not turn to suicide:

“Incarceration is difficult for many people. ... At times you may feel hopeless about your future and your thoughts may turn to suicide. If you are unable to think of solutions other than suicide, it is not because solutions do not exist: it is because you are currently unable to see them. Don’t lose hope. ... Look for meaning and purpose in educational and treatment programs, faith, work, family, and friends. Every day, inmates…find the strength and support to move ahead in a positive direction, despite the challenging circumstances. ... But ... whatever your circumstances, my commitment to you is the same. I want you to succeed.”

The Bureau of Prisons Suicide Prevention Memo