Synagogue shooter would live in near isolation in supermax prison if spared death penalty, expert says
If Robert Bowers is sentenced to life in prison, he would almost certainly go to what is called the ADX in Florence, Colo.
The administrative maximum-security prison, the only supermax facility in the federal Bureau of Prisons, is reserved for the most notorious prisoners in the system, terrorists and national security threats.
Bowers, convicted of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, would fit that mold.
Maureen Baird, a former federal prison warden who now serves as a consultant, told jurors Wednesday what Bowers could expect if he is spared the death penalty.
On H unit — the most secure unit in the prison — inmates are confined for up to 23 hours each day.
They eat all of their meals inside their single cells.
They may shower only three times a week.
Their toilets can only flush twice an hour.
They get two, 15-minute phone calls a month — monitored live by the FBI and Bureau of Prisons, which can disconnect the call immediately.
There are never contact visits. Instead, inmates must talk to their visitors on telephone receivers through glass windows — conversations that are also monitored live by FBI agents and prison personnel.
All recreation is alone and in a locked area.
“Again, it’s in a cage,” Baird testified. “Again, it would be by themselves.”
As Bowers’ federal trial continues, Baird was called to testify as part of the defense case in mitigation about the conditions of confinement he would face if sentenced to life in prison without release.
The prosecution is seeking the death penalty.
Bowers, 50, of Baldwin, was found guilty of all 63 counts against him for killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Oct. 27, 2018. The jury found him eligible for the death penalty and is now hearing evidence in the final, sentence-selection phase of the trial.
The victims included Rose Mallinger, 97; Bernice Simon, 84, and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; brothers David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Dan Stein, 71; Irving Younger, 69; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Melvin Wax, 87; and Richard Gottfried, 65. They were members of the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations, all of which worshipped at the synagogue.
Baird, who started with the federal Bureau of Prisons in 1989 as a case manager at a federal prison in Connecticut, retired in 2016 as a warden at the medium-security U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Ill.
She now works as a consultant on federal prison issues, including in death penalty cases.
Baird spent about 90 minutes on the stand Wednesday and will return to it Thursday to continue direct examination by the defense.
Qualified as an expert in federal prison policies and procedures, Baird said that a person like Bowers — convicted of killing elderly, vulnerable victims in a religious hate crime with intense media coverage and notoriety — would be a safety and security risk if housed in a general prison population.
He also would likely be a target of other inmates and a significant interruption to the institution.
“The only place that person could safely go is the ADX in Florence, Colo.,” she said. “I believe that’s the only place he could end up.”
Even a maximum-security federal penitentiary would not have enough security, Baird said.
Baird did a tour of ADX and spoke with a Bureau of Prisons attorney who works there to understand the conditions of confinement.
ADX now holds 328 inmates.
“Everything is very controlled,” she said.
In the ADX, inmates are held in single cells and aren’t allowed to have jobs. Programming is limited. The facility is surrounded by gun towers manned 24 hours a day.
Inmates are given a small television for their cells, Baird said. There are 16 broadcast channels, and they include national programming such as ESPN and CNN. There is no local news. There also are 20 channels of prison programming, which can include ones focused on education, psychology and religion.
The televisions are considered a privilege and can be taken away for disciplinary infractions, she said.
The isolated existence described by Baird may not prove to be difficult for Bowers, who has been repeatedly described as a loner during the trial.
Prior to Baird’s testimony, two corrections officers from Butler County Prison, where Bowers has been housed since his arrest, testified that he is flourishing as an inmate.
Capt. Jeff Kengerski said Bowers has never had a disciplinary infraction. He is being held in protective custody on the Restricted Housing Unit and has almost no interaction with other people housed there.
“We call him Uncle Bob,” Kengerski said. “It’s like having your uncle in the unit. It’s just a friendly face.”
Bowers is a model inmate and has never complained about being there, said Officer Adam Pry, who works on the unit.
“He always goes right in (to his cell),” Pry said. “We have no issues. He’s very compliant.”
He said he has never heard Bowers question an officer’s authority, and he’s always respectful.
Pry said Bowers doesn’t appear to mind being there. His cell is always neat and tidy with the bed made.
“He’s meticulous,” Pry said.
He described Bowers as having a flat affect, but told the jury he never got an impression that Bowers was mentally ill. Kengerski said the same.
Bowers spends about 22 hours a day in his cell, sometimes playing solitaire or using a jail-issued tablet with regulated content. In the two hours he is allowed out, the defendant is by himself in a day area, where he can watch television or he can shower or shave.
Although there is a small, indoor recreation yard, Pry said he has never seen Bowers use it.
Kengerski testified that he cuts the defendant’s hair every four to six weeks. No other inmates are permitted to do so.
“Somebody had to volunteer to do it, so it’s me,” he said.
Although both corrections officers said they never heard Bowers proselytize about his hatred of Jews in the facility, they both have heard him complain about illegal immigration.
Pry told the jury that Bowers has said that the United States is becoming like a third-world country. Kengerski said Bowers once asked him where he would go if the United States ended up with too many immigrants.
Kengerski answered, “Canada.”
“That’s been our joke for years,” he said.
While Bowers has never had any disciplinary issues, he caused officers to become concerned on a couple of occasions. Once, Kengerski said, they found the defendant had written out computer code on a piece of paper in his cell.
Worried he was attempting to hack into their Wi-Fi, officers turned it over to federal authorities, who reviewed it and said it was just programming language — as Bowers had said.
In another instance, Kengerski said, the defendant once told him he could identify which officers were working overnight simply by counting their footsteps.
“I was taken aback by it,” he said. “I never heard anyone count the footsteps.
“He was paying attention to us as much as we were to him.”