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Top 10 Worst Prisoners At The Colorado Supermax Prison

by Louisa Naruskiewicz
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Deep in the mountains of Colorado, America’s only supermax prison houses the nation’s most violent inmates. The infamous ADX Florence has earned the nickname “The Alcatraz of the Rockies” because of its extreme security. Over 300 of the most vicious criminals in the United States spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells here. Terrorists, spies, serial killers, and cult leaders live side by side. Some have even formed unlikely friendships. Although everyone there has a horrific record, these are ten of the worst of the worst.

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10 Michael Swango: “Dr. Death”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Fair Use

Like every other medical professional, Dr. Michael Swango swore an oath to do no harm. But he would break this oath dozens of times, as he was convicted of killing four people, and possibly killed up to 60 while he worked as both an EMT and a physician. From his earliest days working as a volunteer ambulance driver during his undergraduate years, patients seemed to die around Swango at a higher than normal rate. His coworkers and other acquaintances also became violently ill after eating food that Swango had access to or had prepared. While he was training at one hospital, he even gained the nickname “Double-O Swango”, referencing James Bond’s license to kill.[1] He may have also been responsible for the death of his fiancée, Kristin Kinney, who took her own life in a state of mental confusion that was potentially caused by arsenic poisoning. He eventually became blacklisted from all teaching hospitals and medical schools in the United States and fled to continue practicing medicine in Zimbabwe, where patients continued to die mysteriously under his care. He committed multiple incidents of forgery and assault so that he could continue his disastrous medical career, but he was eventually charged by both U.S. and Zimbabwean authorities and is serving three consecutive life sentences.[2]

9 Robert Hanssen: Russian spy

Photo Credit: FBI / Wikimedia Commons

Robert Hassen spent only three years as a clean FBI agent before beginning his 22 years of spying that would one day be described as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history”.[3] Hanssen began working as a Special Agent in 1976 and in 1979, he was given the project of collecting Soviet intelligence for the agency. But later that same year, he would reach out to the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and become a double agent. Over the next two decades, Hanssen would leak vast amounts of intelligence to the Soviet’s about spy identities, FBI investigations, and detailed technological information. At one point he was even assigned to investigate who had leaked the identities of two Soviet agents who had been helping the Americans and were killed in the USSR after they were compromised. Unbeknownst to the FBI, it was Hanssen himself who had revealed them.[4] Attempts to track down the leaks that Hanssen was responsible for were complicated by the fact that there was a second mole, Aldrich Ames, working within the FBI at the same time. A joint FBI-CIA task force zeroed in on Hanssen and he was secretly observed by a younger agent, Eric O’Neill, who was able to download information that Hanssen was storing on a PDA device. This included the date for a drop of classified material in a nearby park, where he was apprehended.[5] Hanssen pled guilty to escape the death penalty and was convicted of fourteen counts of espionage and one count of attempted espionage. He is serving fifteen consecutive life sentences.[6]

8 Richard McNair: Master escape artist and murderer

Photo Credit: United States Marshal Service / Wikimedia Commons

Richard McNair is not the type of man that one would expect to find in the Supermax stacked up against the other people on this list. He was once a sergeant at an Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota, but while he was stationed there, he began a string of burglaries. In 1987, however, he was caught red-handed by a staff member while robbing the offices of the Farmers Union and he shot the man and then killed a truck driver as he fled the building. He used a local storage facility to hide his stolen goods, but the manager contacted the police after noticing that the contents looked suspicious.[7] Authorities arrested McNair, but he slipped out of his handcuffs by greasing them with lip balm. When he was re-captured, he was sentenced to two life sentences at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. He used his job as prison reporter to gain information about the layout of the prison, and then escaped through the air ducts in 1992 along with two other prisoners and remained free for nine months before being re-captured. McNair’s final and most notorious escape was in 2006 when he packed himself into a shipment of mail leaving the prison. He even managed to convince a police officer who was looking for the escapee that he was just a jogger.[8] His final re-capture came from rookie officer Constable Stephane Gagnon in 2007 after a long stint on America’s Most Wanted. No one has ever escaped from ADX Florence, where he is now serving two life sentences.

7 Abu Hamza al-Masri: Al-Qaeda kidnapper and trainer

Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Prisoners employee / Wikimedia Commons

Abu Hamza al-Masri, aka the Hook Hand, is an Egyptian national who was a former club bouncer and civil engineer before becoming an Islamic extremist and terrorist leader. In the 1980s, he began to take a deeper interest in his religion and became inspired by the Iranian revolution. In 1987, he moved to Afghanistan to join the fight against Soviet occupying forces and lost both hands and one eye during a military operation. He returned to the U.K. to receive treatment, before leaving again to fight with the Bosnians during the Bosnia-Serbia conflict.[9] From 1997-2003 he was the imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London and voiced his support for terrorism, including 9/11 attacks. In 2003 the mosque was shut down by police as part of investigation into their possible production of the poison ricin, but al-Masri continued to give sermons from outside the gates. During his time as imam, al-Masri sent trainees around the world to participate in violent acts, including the kidnapping of sixteen westerners in Yemen, four of whom were killed. His team also attempted to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon,[10] leading to U.S. involvement in his case. In 2006, he was sentenced to seven years in British prison for inciting violence.[11] In 2012, he was extradited to the U.S., and found guilty of 11 terrorism counts and sentenced to life in prison in 2015. Several of his sons have also been convicted of terrorism and other charges.[12] When placed in the Supermax prison, his hook hand prosthetic was replaced with a plastic spork.[13]

6 Eric Rudolph: Atlanta Olympic Bomber and Christian extremist

Photo Credit: North Carolina criminal records / Wikipedia / Fair Use

Eric Rudolph spent five years on the FBI Most Wanted List for terrorism until he was arrested by a rookie police officer while digging through the dumpster behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store. Rudolph grew up in Florida and North Carolina before moving with his mother to a Missouri compound run by the Christian Identity movement,[14] a racial interpretation of Christianity that believes Europeans are the chosen descendants of the Israelites and Jews are the cursed descendants of Cain. Rudolph enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after this but was discharged for marijuana use.[15] Over the span of 1996 to 1998, Rudolph committed four bombing attacks, two at abortion clinics and one at a lesbian bar. His most notorious attack was when he planted three pipe bombs filled with nails in the main square of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, killing 44-year-old Alice Hawthorne, causing a fatal heart attack for 40-year-old Melih Uzunyol, and injuring over a hundred others. Security guard Richard Jewell led a partial evacuation of the area and was originally the main suspect but was eventually cleared and hailed as a hero. Rudolph was finally caught by officer Jeffrey Scott Postell in 2003 and pled guilty. He was sentenced to two life sentences for one of the abortion clinic bombings that had killed a police officer, and later two more life sentences for the Atlanta bombing. He now spends 22 ½ hours a day in his 80 ft² cell.[16]

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5 Simón Trinidad: FARC guerilla leader


The man known as Simon Trinidad was actually named Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda and was one of the first high-ranking members of this violent guerilla group to be arrested. FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was a group of Marxist-Leninist fighters who were responsible for up to 12% of civilian deaths during the Colombian conflict in the 1960s.[17] Palmera formed his strong political opinions while teaching economics at the Popular University of Cesar and helped create the socialist organization known as Los Indipendientes. In 1987, he stole 30 million pesos from a bank that he was working at, as well as records he would later use to extort and kidnap landowners, and he escaped into the wilderness to join FARC. Palerma quickly rose through the ranks of the organization to lead the area known as “Front 41” and eventually was one of the leaders of the entire Caribbean bloc. In 2004, he was extradited to the United States on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. FARC was offered a deal by the Colombian government that they would not extradite Palmera if FARC released 63 political and military hostages, but they refused. During the trial, the prosecution also argued that Palerma was involved in the kidnapping of three U.S. contractors in 2003, and a former guerilla testified against him about the kidnapping of a former mayor. Although his first trial ended in a hung jury, his second trial ended with him being sentenced to sixty years in prison, where he remains to this day.[18]

4 Theodore Kaczynski: The Unabomber

Photo Credit: FBI / Wikimedia Commons

According to Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski’s parents, he started life as a normal baby, but as a young child he was forced to spend a long period of time in isolation in the hospital and he emerged a different kid, one who showed little emotion.[19] He was a mathematics prodigy and began studying at Harvard at age 16. But what seemed like a bright opportunity would turn into a deeply scarring college experience. Kaczynski participated in a brutal psychological study that involved over 200 hours of verbal abuse and humiliating personal attacks, which was possibly part of CIA-led attempts at mind-control through project MKUltra.[20] He became a mathematics professor, but was an awkward and uncomfortable teacher, and resigned suddenly in 1969.[21] Kaczynski soon moved to a remote cabin near Lincoln, Montana intending to live a quiet rural lifestyle, but soon began attacking urban developments that he felt were encroaching on his forest.[22] He developed a deep resentment for what he called “industrial-technological society”. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski sent sixteen hand-made bombs to figures he felt represented technology, killing three people, and injuring twenty-three. He planted several false clues in the bombs to mislead authorities, however, his own work would lead to his downfall. In 1995, Kaczynski demanded that newspapers publish his essay “Industrial Society and Its Future” and after it was printed by The Washington Post, Kaczynski’s brother David came forward with suspicions about his brother that led to his capture and conviction.[23] Kaczynski is serving eight life sentences at ADX Florence, where he befriended fellow terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Ramzi Yousef.[24]

3 Tyler Bingham: Aryan Brotherhood Leader


Tyler Bingham is a former leader of the violent white supremacist prison gang the Aryan Brotherhood that began among California inmates in 1964. It was originally nicknamed the “Diamond Tooth Gang” because of the glass shards that some members put in their teeth. The gang started as a white counterpart to African-American prison gangs when prisons began to desegregate, but has since grown to 20,000 members[25] They operate on a “blood in, blood out” motto which implies that members must kill or assault another prisoner or correctional officer to join, and the only way to leave the gang is death. At one point in the 2010s, law enforcement determined that despite being less than 0.10% of the prison population, they were responsible for 18% of prison murders.[26] Bingham rose to be a high-ranking member of the organization’s leadership council. In the early 2000s, authorities charged him and 28 other gang leaders with a litany of charges in an attempt to sentence many of them to death. In 2006, Bingham and several others were convicted of murder and racketeering, but federal prosecutors failed in securing the death penalty. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Aryan Brotherhood today is the largest and most deadly prison gang in the United States.[27]

2 Joaquín Guzmán: “El Chapo”

Photo Credit: DEA / Wikimedia Commons

Don’t let the nickname “Shorty” fool you. Joaquin Guzman, aka “El Chapo”, is one of the most notorious drug traffickers and murders in the world. Born in Sinaloa, Mexico in 1957, Guzman started his journey into the drug world early by growing marijuana with his father. He entered the hard drug trade under known king-pins Hector Salazar and later Miguel Gallardo until Gallardo was arrested in 1988. Guzman began his own cartel operations, trafficking more cocaine, marijuana, meth, and heroin into the United States than any other drug dealer in history. In 1993 a rival cartel attempted to assassinate Guzman at an airport, but accidentally killed the Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara and six other bystanders. Guzman was ordered to pay $12.6 billion in forfeiture.[28] He escaped prison twice in Mexico but was extradited to the U.S. in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison plus thirty years on ten different charges. Guzman has had at least four wives, one of which he kidnapped, and at least twelve children, several of whom have also been convicted on drug charges or killed in cartel warfare.[29] Despite having very little formal education, Guzman’s Sinona cartel grew to control 40%-60% of the drug trade in Mexico. Guzman has claimed to have indirectly killed 2,000-3,000 people. He also used intricate tunnel systems for moving drugs and escaping authorities, but he won’t have much luck if he tries that at Colorado’s Alcatraz.

1 James Marcello: Mafia boss

Photo Credit: FBI / Wikipedia

James Marcello, known as “Little Jimmy”, was a sanitation worker turned mafia boss in Chicago during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the fact that he was half-Irish, Marcello quickly rose through the ranks to run multiple racketeering schemes, loan-sharking operations, and eventually planned eighteen murders and committed fourteen. He and his brother Michael “Mickey” Marcello were convicted of murdering two other mafia brothers Michael and Anthony “Tony The Ant” Spilotro and dumping Anthony’s body in a cornfield. This crime partially inspired the 1995 movie Casino.[30] Marcello’s own father was killed while collecting a mob debt in 1973, perhaps leading to his sons’ life in the criminal underbelly of the city.[31] In 2007, Marcello was tried alongside four others: mobsters “Joey the Clown” Lombardo and Frank Calabrese Sr., jewel thief Paul Schiro, and former Chicago police officer Anthony Doyle. Calabrese’s brother Nicholas was the prosecution’s star witness and Calabrese’s own lawyer said that he was so vicious that “He would shoot you in the head over cold ravioli”.[32] Marcello appeared cold and matter of fact in court as all five men were convicted. He is serving a life sentence.

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fact checked by Jamie Frater