Life in the Supermax–An inmates true life account

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat-by Byron Christopher

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
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.

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.


a 4 inch sliver is the only peak to the outside

McNair was confined to
his cell 23-hours a day with no physical contact with other inmates.
[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
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
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
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.

over 300 letters McNair sent

“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
“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
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.
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
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.
Typical letter click to enlarge

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.”
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 …”.

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
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
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
“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
“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

“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
“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
“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.”

Mailed himself:

McNair: In his last
escape from a federal prison in April 2006, he mailed himself out of prison in
a crate. This resulted in his mugshot being featured a dozen times on the TV
show America’s Most Wanted, and made him one of the top fifteen fugitives
wanted by US Marshals

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
“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
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
“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.”
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

Flexible pen

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).” Commissary list below—flex pens are now 45 cents

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
“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
“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 the 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 and 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

“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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.

Odds and Ends

“No mail last night
because of the Native’s favorite holiday — Columbus Day. I see this is your
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
“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
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
“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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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

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
“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.
“Just received your 14
February [2010] 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
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.
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
“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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