SOME of the United States' most notorious criminals have begun moving into a new US$750 million residence in the foothills of the majestic Rocky Mountains. The first 40 arrived a month ago, in shackles and chains - and if they were hoping to enjoy the view of the picturesque hills rising over the quiet little town of Florence, Colorado, they were sorely disappointed. Their new home is a hi-tech Federal prison known as Supermax, short for super maximum security. The Administrative Maximum Facility of the Florence Correctional Institution, to give it its full name, is the first prison custom-built to house the nation's toughest convicts, using a regime of isolation and 'behaviour modification' to control its violent and escape-prone inmates. 'There's not a doubt we have a severe programme here,' says associate warden John Vanyur. 'This facility is one of a kind.' If a man doesn't like his own company, he is in big trouble at Supermax. Most new prisoners will be kept in individual cells 23 hours a day - and then prevented from meeting other inmates during an hour of solitary exercise in a small enclosed corridor. Prisoners can qualify for a few extra hours out of their cells and some group interaction after demonstrating what the prison handbook calls 'positive institution adjustment'. The guiding philosophy is to break an inmate psychologically by subjecting him to the strictest rules of any modern American prison. Prisoners' rights groups say this kind of sensory deprivation is a form of mental torture, but they have had a hard time rousing much sympathy in the crime-plagued USA. The warders' futuristic zeal reflects the country's growing anger at criminals. During this year, other prisoners will arrive in stages until the prison reaches its capacity of about 500. Most, like the first 40, will come from the penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, where 12 years ago officials first experimented with the harsh confinement that Supermax now embodies. Supermax consists of nine separate cell blocks sub-divided by 1,400 electronic gates operated by guards using touch-screen computers and 168 television monitors. Individual cells, each with one small window offering only a glimpse of the Colorado sky, are staggered along muted green and maroon corridors so that inmates cannot see one another. A system of double doors to each cell, including an inner gate and an outer door with a narrow slot for food trays, makes it virtually impossible for inmates to converse with each other. Officials won't say, but there is a good chance that future arrivals will include Mafia boss John Gotti, the most powerful criminal in America until his conviction three years ago on charges resulting in a life sentence with no chance of parole. Since his conviction, which closed the curtain on a reign of underworld infamy not seen since the Al Capone era 50 years ago, Gotti has been held in the most restrictive of three levels of confinement at Marion - as were the first 40 arrivals at Supermax. 'We've heard rumours that John will be moved there,' says Gotti's barrister Bruce Cutler, 'but nothing has been substantiated yet. If they move him, they'll probably notify me afterwards.' Normally, inmates at Marion graduate to the least restrictive level of confinement within three years; the same rules will apply at Supermax. Officials refuse to say why Gotti is still kept in the most onerous level, but it seems that he is likely to be held under the same strictures at Supermax. Cutler claims that Gotti is a model inmate, and that he remains emotionally and physically strong. 'I visited him at Marion a few days ago. His health and mental state are second to one. He looks great. He may have turned 54, but his physique is that of a 30-year-old.' Supermax was built to replace Marion, which will revert to a normal maximum security prison. Marion became the Supermax prototype after a series of disturbances culminating in the murders of two guards in 1983. Officials imposed a 'lockdown' - and it has never been lifted. Since then, Marion has not had another escape attempt, riot or guard death. Marion's success has also prompted 36 other states to develop similarly restrictive 'control units' in their prisons. About 20,000 prisoners across the US are now held in conditions similar to Supermax. That represents about two per cent of the nation's exploding prison population, which is likely to grow dramatically now that states can get money for prison construction if they end parole for criminals convicted of a third serious crime and limit remission for good behaviour. The number of Americans in prison topped one million for the first time last year, with numbers growing by almost 40,000 a month. The 'rate of incarceration' has soared since 1980. Then, for every 100,000 residents, 139 were in prison; now the rate is 373 per 100,000, with the US second to Russia in the world prison league. Including those awaiting trial or serving short sentences, the US incarceration rate is five times that in England and Wales, and 14 times more than Japan. Most of the difference is attributable to the higher level of violent crime in America, and the public clamour for longer sentences for violent offenders. Many states now have laws requiring judges to impose long sentences for certain crimes - and in a case like that of Gotti, who was convicted of ordering multiple murders, a life sentence with no chance of parole. The nation has also become tougher on drug-related crime. In 1980, 19 of every 1,000 people arrested on a drug charge were sent to prison; in 1992, the rate was 104 per 1,000. 'The political climate has shifted to the right,' says Richard Stratton, editor of Prison Life, a magazine for inmates launched two years ago to capitalise on a captive audience. 'We used to fear the evil empire of communism. Now we've replaced that with crime. Prisons are big business.' Prisons are the main industry in Colorado's Fremont County, which includes the town of Florence. Supermax is one of four prisons in the Florence Correctional Institution, known in town as FCI. The other three are low-, medium-and high-security. When Supermax is full, FCI's 3,000 prisoners will make up half the population of Florence, a former mining industry crossroads which had fallen on hard times until 1987, when construction of the complex began. There are also nine state prisons in Fremont County, one of the most scenic regions in North America, meaning that about one-fifth of the country's 34,000 residents lives behind bars. For those not locked up, crime does indeed pay. The prisons generate an annual payroll of nearly US$100 million, and have brought such civic improvements as a golf course, water system, a restored cinema and a motel displaying the message: 'Welcome, FCI Visitors. Weekly Rates Now Available.' A few citizens have expressed concern about so many prisoners' extended families coming to town to visit loved ones. But most heartily endorse the view of Darrell Lindsey, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, which raised around US$150,000 to help buy the property the government needed to build FCI. He says that thanks to FCI, 'Florence is on the map big-time.' Local media dubbed Supermax 'the Alcatrz of the Rockies', a reference to the legendarily escape-proof prison, now a museum, that was Al Capone's one-time home in San Francisco Bay. Supermax and its three sister prisons are located a few kilometres out of town, with no signs announcing what's ahead. But soon enough, in the dry prairie between the foothills, you see the sun glinting off the mirrored glass of six guard towers and the razor wire of the two fences that define Supermax's perimeter, which at night can be made as bright as day by 8,000-watt floodlights. Just as the icy water of San Francisco Bay helped to make Alcatraz escape-proof, so does the forlorn prairie around Supermax. It would take a hellishly long sprint across open terrain to reach the foothills. And that's assuming that an inmate could take unauthorised leave of his computer-controlled cell and approach the guard towers without tripping sensors above and below ground. Barring a guards' conspiracy, the system of remotely operated doors, gates, lights, intercoms and cameras seems invulnerable. The cells have the feel of sealed bomb shelters - with few of the amenities. To eliminate vandalism and the fashioning of home-made weapons, they are constructed almost entirely of concrete. A concrete slab covered with a thin mattress serves as the bed; the concrete desk, stool and bookcase are anchored to the floor. The cell wall contains a device for lighting cigarettes - eliminating the need for matches and lighters, which in other prisons have been used to make explosive devices. The shower cubicle has a pre-set shut-off - to prevent intentional flooding. All food utensils and trays are plastic, Each of the nine cell blocks contains its own basic law library, medical office and barber shop, so an inmate never gets to spend much time walking in chains with the two guards who must accompany him each time he leaves his cell. Each cell contains a 12-inch black-and-white television set, on which a prisoner can watch mainstream and educational programmes. He may also avail himself of a closed-circuit 'Stress management Course'. Stress is one of the main symptoms of long-term isolation, but while Amnesty International says that practices at Marion and Supermax violate United Nations standards for treatment of prisoners, US courts have upheld them in numerous legal challenges. In Colorado, if not Florence, some prisoner advocates have tried to turn public opinion against Supermax. A group called Abolish Control-Unite Torture (ACUT) has demonstrated in faraway Denver. Last year, 300 protesters rallied outside the gates of Supermax, without generating much support. Now the protestors are gone, and John Gotti and other notorious villains are on their way. In a conversation secretly recorded by government agents working to convict him, Gotti was overheard telling his men: 'I like jail better than the streets.' It was a joking comment meant to convey his strength and defiance. Now both are about to be tested - to the max. Capeci and Gene Mustain are co-authors of the forthcoming Gotti: Rise and Fall and other true-crime books.