Held in darkness for the rest of his natural lifeJacqui Goddard
Dec. 05, 2006
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Five years ago this month Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, tried to blow up a transatlantic flight. Here Jacqui Goddard gives an exclusive account of his days in the Alcatraz of the Rockies At six feet four inches tall, Richard Reid makes a forbidding figure, even from behind the iron grates, steel doors and automated locks that separate him from his prison guards in this place they call Terrorist Central.
Hunched on a stool that is moulded to the floor of his broom-cupboard-sized cell, he turns the pages of the newspaper spread out on the concrete desk before him, soaking up stories and pictures from an outside world that he will never see again.
"Do you need anything today?" a prison guard asks him politely every morning.
"Yeah, toothpaste," he might answer, or "Pencil and paper" or "I want a shower."
"It's not like he exchanges pleasantries with you, it's strictly business both ways, but he doesn't go out of his way to be rude either," said Cory Hodge, 37, a former correctional officer at the unit.
"Other than maybe some incidental whining, he's a fairly compliant inmate and I never had problems with him, which is good because he's a big man. But remember that Richard Reid was in prison in England even before he became the Shoe Bomber. He's a convict through and through, and that makes him an extra special danger. He understands the system and how to manipulate it if he wants to."
His docile demeanour as inmate number 24079-038 is a far cry from the behaviour that landed him here at the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility — also known as ADX, Super Max, Bombers' Row, and the Alcatraz of the Rockies — just outside the town of Florence, Colorado. Five years ago, on December 22, 2001, Reid, of Bromley, Kent, boarded American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, intending to blow it up by detonating plastic explosives hidden in one of his shoes. As he tried to light the fuse he was spotted by a flight attendant and, following a violent struggle, was overpowered.
Just over a year later the young fanatic who had attended Finsbury Park mosque in London where Abu Hamza preached was sentenced to life in prison.
The first British al-Qaeda convict was dragged from the federal courtroom in Boston still shouting his allegiance to Osama bin Laden. "I'm at war with your country," he yelled at the judge.
Beyond this concrete fortress in Colorado, with its watchtowers, razor wire, and walls reinforced with seven layers of steel and cement, lies a land of wilderness and ranches, lofty mountains and glamorous ski resorts, big skies and dramatic pink sunsets. Cattle and the occasional deer graze the perimeter, peregrine falcons soar overhead.
Located on a high desert plain in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 90 miles south of Denver, Florence had its first fall of winter snow last week, turning the sun-yellowed landscape a blinding white.
But from his cell on a unit that also houses fellow al-Qaeda terrorists, Reid, 33, sees nothing of the panorama.
For the rest of his life, his window on the world will be a slit measuring 42 in long and four inches wide, through which he can glimpse an enclosed concrete yard with 25 ft walls and, through the chainlink mesh that covers it, a small patch of sky. The prison, which opened in 1994, was built following the 1983 killings of guards at a penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. It was intended to hold the country's most dangerous prisoners.
"It's sensory deprivation — not Guantanamo, not hoods over your head and mental torture, but the next worst thing," one guard claimed.
The al-Qaeda inmates are kept in a separate area from other prisoners "partly because they have common needs particular to their faith, partly to ensure they cannot try to recruit others to their cause," explained one guard.
Another said: "There are sociopaths and borderline psychopaths among the other prisoners here. They know that they could make a name for themselves if they took the life of a high-profile inmate — a 9/11 terrorist, the World Trade Centre guys, the Shoe Bomber."
For 23 hours a day, Reid is locked down, confined to his cell. From computerised control booths, staff monitor the ranges using remote-controlled video cameras and motion sensors. Every half hour, day and night, he is checked through the windows in his cell doors and must stand by his bed at designated times, five times a day as the staff take a head-count.
His one hour of "freedom" may be spent padding around an indoor recreation hall alone, apart from his escorts, or sometimes in a yard with others, sectioned off from one another in "dog kennel" style compounds.
There, they pace back and forth like "big cats at a zoo," according to fellow inmate Eric Robert Rudolph, 40, who is serving life for the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and a series of fatal attacks on abortion clinics.
In letters to an American writer, Maryanne Vollers, the author of a newly published biography of him, he recounts how the shouts of the jihadists reverberate through the prison. "They're an extremely fatalistic people. They have little interest in anything other than the Middle East, President Bush and Islam."
Sometimes, he says, they shout out to him and teach him their language. At other times, they are "sulking or buried in some Arabic hell of depression." Like the other al-Qaeda prisoners, Reid, according to sources at the jail, takes advantage of "the inmate telephone" — the shower drains, through which they yell to one another while washing.
"Sometimes it's Arabic, sometimes it's English," the source revealed. Officers will hear the shouts of Allahu Akhbar — God is great. Other times, one said, "It's stuff like: 'Hey, what book are you reading at the moment?' "
Staff are trained not to divulge personal details, such as whether they have children, where they grew up, whether a relative is sick. "You don't want these guys getting inside your head, Silence of the Lambs-style. They're predatory manipulators," said one worker.
The day begins at around 5.30am, when the lights are turned up, stirring Reid from the thin mattress laid on his concrete bed. Breakfast is served on a tray delivered to his cell by two guards, who must wait for the outer double doors to lock behind them before they enter the inner set of barred gates or pass items through the hatch.
Lunch is at 11am, dinner at 4pm. The lights go down again — but never out — at 10pm.
"Other than, 'Hey, where's my apple?' or a complaint about not getting something on his plate he felt he should get, or, 'Am I going to get a shower today?' you would get very little out of Reid," said Mr Hodge.
If he wants a new toothbrush he must first hand over his old one. They are issued to inmates with the handles filed down to a stump and only the brush remaining. He is allowed a shower once a day, for which he is escorted in handcuffs along the corridor, with one officer maintaining close contact with him and another there as back-up. Staff do not carry firearms inside the unit to avoid being targeted for their weapons. They carry just a baton and a radio and wear a panic -button at their waists that will relay their exact location to a control room and summon reinforcements in an emergency.
Before he re-enters his cell, Reid must be scanned by a special X-ray machine capable of detecting foreign objects under his T-shirt and sweatpants.
"For the other inmates, it's a case of undressing for a visual body-cavity search, but the Muslims have a religious issue that we need to respect," a prison source explained.
"They can take their shoes off though — you wouldn't want to forget to look in Richard Reid's shoes."
He is allowed books, including the Koran, newspapers, letters from outside, and a prayer mat. In addition to his prison issue white T-shirt, blue sweatpants and orange or blue deck shoes, he is also permitted to wear the traditional white kufi, or skullcap.
On his desk, which is built into the wall so that it cannot be moved, is a 12in television set with a see-through back so officers can check for missing parts or anything hidden inside.
The television delivers a diet of "educational" programmes such as anger management and literacy, a basic package of entertainment channels, and an in-house quiz. "It's a sort of Trivial Pursuit, with five or six different questions and the chance to win a candy bar if he gets them right," said one insider.
The colour scheme within the ADX is "pretty raw, pale army green, cement grey, off-white," said Gary Kalitolites, 44, a prison guard who quit the job last year.
"It's a very negative atmosphere. They can't see grass or trees, they will never feel the touch of a loved one, they will never see bright colours, they're deprived of the sensory stimulation that you and I know.
"Everyone in there is in a dark abyss. The isolation breeds paranoia, it's contagious.
"I don't know Richard Reid, but I'll tell you one thing. You put a dog in a cage and keep poking it with a big stick, don't expect it to stay nice."