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Life Inside

Fun in the Supermax

Trivial Pursuit, Ted Kaczynski, and candy bars.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

The first thing I noticed was the silence.

I had spent the previous 12 months incarcerated at the Federal Prison Camp at Florence, Colo. Living with 400 other minimum-security inmates, I’d grown acclimated to a certain level of background noise: radios playing, loud conversations, card games. The place buzzed with the sound of life — not much of a life, but life nonetheless.

Now I was walking into our neighboring facility, the infamous “supermax,” and it was as silent as a tomb.

I’d recently had my prison job transferred from the recreation department at the camp to the same department at the supermax. Three days a week, I would be an inmate worker inside the most imposing building I had ever seen.

If someone asked me to describe the word “doom” using just a picture, I would hand them a photo of that maximum security prison.

On my first day, we boarded a bus and drove the two miles over. As we got off, I realized the place had two levels: the upper levels held administrative offices, medical stations, and guard rooms, and the lower levels housed the prisoners in a maze of electronically locking doors and steep ramps.

We went through an ID check, two pat-downs (one on each side of a razor wire-topped fence), and a metal detector.

“I have six campers moving from back bay to recreation,” the guard next to me squawked into his radio.

“You’re free to make that move,” responded the voice of an unseen officer, whose job was to watch the monitors and help coordinate the movement of the inmate workers bused in from the camp.

The door opened and we proceeded down a large hallway. Overhead, halogen lights glared every few feet. The walls were bare, painted a white that was almost reflective. Nothing could hide here, not even shadows.

As we walked, an administrator turned the corner and came toward us. Because I was near the front, I didn’t notice that every other Camp inmate had stopped and pressed themselves flat against the wall.

“Williams, stop!” the guard yelled.

I froze, unsure what I had done but realizing that he’d used his “show” voice, reserved for situations when higher-ups are observing, when the CO is trying to impress other inmates with his harshness, or when you have royally fucked up.

“This ain’t the fucking camp. In this building, when anyone is walking towards you that’s not wearing green, you stop and press yourself against the wall. And you stay there until they are a dozen feet past us.”

“Got it, boss.”

After several more electronic doors, we arrived. An officer we knew from camp greeted us, and was soon explaining what our job would be. On Tuesdays, he said, our six-inmate crew would shelve books returned by the supermax inmates; we would also type up a 10-question quiz about one of the novels, make copies for every inmate, and place them on the appropriate cart. On Wednesdays, we would fill requests for new books, grade the returned quizzes, and place candy bars on the winners’ carts. Wednesdays we would also prepare a math, logic, or visual puzzle for the inmates, which we would then grade on Thursday.

An inmate who had already been working at the supermax for years told me that the quizzes almost always had a large number of winners, because the inmates whisper the answers to each other. That way, everyone on the tier gets the highest score and a candy bar.

Soon, I was sitting down before an ancient typewriter, trying to think of some good quiz questions. The inmates had apparently been watching all eight Harry Potter movies recently, so I typed up a quiz on Harry Potter from memory.

Among the questions I posed to the most dangerous inmates in the world: How does one free a house elf from servitude?

The next day, when I sat down to grade the returned quizzes, I noticed that most of the inmates had gotten 5 out of 10. Just as I’d been told, there were over a dozen inmates with this score on each tier, making them all “winners.” I had already started doling out the candy bars when I came across another quiz — with a score of 8 out of 10.

At the top of the page, in perfect all-caps, the inmate had written: THEODORE JOHN KACZYNSKI.

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I circled the score and put his sheet and candy bar on D wing’s cart, alone.

After lunch, the guards came to collect the carts. One of them beckoned me over.

“What’s going on? There’s only one candy bar,” he asked.

“Kaczynski dropped an eight on them. Everyone else got fives.”

“Fuck! They are gonna be pissed about that. Grab me a box of PowerBars, I’m not listening to a bunch of whining today. It’s bad enough you sent them a Harry Potter quiz.”

“I thought they would like it! They just watched the movies...”

“Well they didn’t like it. I’ve been listening to them complain about it all morning.”

My exchanges with the supermax inmates eventually became more cordial. I continued to write themed quizzes (the astronomy one was surprisingly popular, producing a handful of perfect answers), mixed in with some pulled directly from a 12-year-old Trivial Pursuit game.

I even opened a letter from the Unabomber. Like everything else Kaczynski sent in, it was written in all caps and he referred to himself as THEODORE JOHN KACZYNSKI. But rather than a diatribe, he was simply making a polite request for books.

I recognized one of the titles: “The Name of the Wind,” by Patrick Rothfuss.

I like to think that fantasy books are popular in prison because they allow the inmate to escape his surroundings. But there’s a simpler reason: prisoners are only allowed a certain number of books, and fantasy books tend to be much longer than general fiction.

If you can only have three books, might as well make one of them a 1,000-pager.

Blake Williams, 34, was incarcerated at a satellite camp of the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colo., for securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud.