Federal Correctional Complex, including the Administrative Maximum Penitentiary or "Supermax" prison, in Florence, Colorado February 21, 2007.
Federal Correctional Complex, including the Administrative Maximum Penitentiary or "Supermax" prison, in Florence, Colorado February 21, 2007.

If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers are successful, one or more jurors at Boston’s federal courthouse will vote to spare the life of the man convicted for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Then the remainder of his life may be spent in what one former U.S. prison official describes as a “clean version of hell.”

The 12-member jury that found Tsarnaev guilty of 30 terrorism and other charges began Wednesday weighing whether he should live or die.

FILE - Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is pictured in this hando
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is pictured in this handout photo presented as evidence by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston, Massachusetts on March 23, 2015. Tsarnaev was heavily influenced by al Qaeda literature and lectures, some of which was found on his laptop,

Of those charges, 17 are eligible for the death penalty. If the jurors return a unanimous decision on any, Tsarnaev will become the 63rd person awaiting federal execution.

If he isn’t sentenced to death, however, the 21-year-old will likely live out the rest of his life on a barren and windswept Colorado plain in the Rocky Mountains foothills, surrounded by concrete walls, razor wire, round-the-clock surveillance camera and gun towers at the highest security prison in the United States.

Located about a two-hour drive south of Denver, the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, known as “Supermax” or ADX, is the only one of its kind in the country.

A $60 million facility built in 1994, the prison is “designed for male inmates who have demonstrated an inability to function in a less restrictive environment without being a threat to others or to the secure and orderly operation of the institution,” according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Cell inside the Supermax prison, Florence, Colorad
Cell inside the Supermax prison, Florence, Colorado

Robert Hood, who was the facility’s warden from 2002 to 2005, described it as a “clean version of hell” and “not designed for humanity.” 

“Every other prison in America, they call them penitentiaries, they call them correctional institutions,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference here. There’s no real rehabilitative aspect,” he said. “He will be in a box 23 hours a day. Period.”

During the “penalty” phase of the trial, Tsarnaev’s defense lawyers made the harsh, isolating environment of the ADX prominent in their arguments as they tried to persuade the jury not to vote for execution.

Bleak conditions

Lead defense lawyer Judy Clark told the jury— seven women and five men—  that no matter what sentence they chose, Dzhokhar would die in prison: the only question would be when.

Life in prison “is not a lesser sentence, it is another sentence,” she said in closing arguments Wednesday. “It ensures that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be locked away in a bleak environment in bleak conditions. He will have no fame, no notoriety. He will have no media attention.”

What is a Supermax Prison?

Like most of the Supermax’s 418 inmates, Tsarnaev would spend at least 22 hours of day by himself in his cell and be limited to two 15-minute phone conversations with immediate family members each month. His mail would be screened and daily physical exercise would be limited to a small caged-in area. He would have no contact with other prisoners.

If he misbehaves, he could face even harsher restrictions.

The ADX is “a mechanism to cut off an inmate’s communications with the outside world,” Mark Bezy, a corrections consultant hired by defense lawyers, testified in court May 6.

In each cell, a narrow slit of a window allows for natural light, but no view other than the sky or another building, according to Amnesty International, which published a critical report in 2011 on the use of solitary confinement in the federal prison system.

“Sitting in a small box in a walking distance of eight feet, this little hole becomes my world, my dining room, reading and writing area, sleeping, walking, urinating, and defecating,” one inmate, Mahmud Abouhalima, was quoted as saying in the report. “I am virtually living in a bathroom, and this concept has never left my mind in ten years.”

Unconstitutional confinement?

Lawyers representing some inmates held at the ADX filed a class action lawsuit in 2012, charging that the conditions, particularly solitary confinement, violated constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In their cross-examination, prosecutors pointed out that there was no guarantee Tsarnaev would be sent to the Colorado facility, and the conditions of his confinement could change, and even could be moved to another facility someday.

Supermax Prison, Florence, Colorado
Supermax Prison, Florence, Colorado

Hood disputed that, saying that given the notoriety of the crime, and given other high profile terrorism convicts also housed at the ADX, it was probable Tsarnaev would end up there.

He also said it was unlikely Tsarnaev would end up in another facility someday because of the danger posed by other inmates.

“He’s just a kid, a street kid coming in, He doesn’t have street smarts like other inmates,” he said. “Being around experienced inmates, they’ll eat them up. He will not be walking around the yard, because he will be hurt.”

If the jury does end up sentencing him to death, Hood said, Tsarnaev would very well spend at least some time at the ADX, while his appeals work their way through the court system.

The ADX is the third such facility built by the United States.

The best known, and a fixture in many Hollywood movies, was the prison built on an island in San Francisco Bay: Alcatraz.

Now a museum, Alcatraz was replaced by the prison in Marion, Illinois, which was the highest security prison from 1963 until 2006 when it was downgraded to medium security.

The ADX was ordered built after two prison guards at the Marion prison were killed by white supremacists in 1983, and federal officials decided a new, higher-tech institution was needed.

The Colorado prison is already home to some of the most notorious U.S. inmates.

Zacarias Moussaoui, who was involved in plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane in 2009 by trying to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear, are all housed at the ADX.

Others include Terry Nichols, who helped to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995; Ted Kaczynski, whose homemade mail bombs killed three people and injured 23 over a 17-year period; and Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for the Soviets.

After the Supermax, Hood said “there’s only one other box, and that box is underground.”

VOA reporter Fatima Tlisova contributed to this report from Boston