The newest and perhaps most escape-proof federal penitentiary in the United States soon will be open for business on the Southeast Side.

Beginning in early February, some of the meanest prisoners in the U.S. prisons system will begin arriving at the sprawling, fortresslike U.S. Penitentiary-Tucson at 9300 S. Wilmot Road, officials said.

Although the $100 million facility was basically completed more than a year ago, it's taken another year to do follow-up work to make the facility ready for the inmates, said Josias Salazar, executive assistant of the Federal Correctional Complex, which includes the penitentiary.

The inmates will be men convicted of murder and other serious offenses, and who have a history of violence, both before and after their lives behind bars.

The arrival of the penitentiary's first prisoners was moved back a month to allow more time to finish up some last-minute work, Salazar said.

"We want to be real certain that everything is ready," he said.

Tight security

Groups of about a half-dozen prisoners at a time will be brought to the facility through the coming year, Salazar said.

The penitentiary was built to hold up to 1,500 inmates, but officials plan to limit the population to about 960, he said.

There are only two other facilities in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system that are more secure than high-security facilities like the Tucson penitentiary: the so-called "super-max" facilities in Marion, Ill., and Lakewood, Colo. — the latter being home to the likes of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, one of the planners of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Prisons officials last week offered tours of the penitentiary to about 100 people. It was the only chance the public will get to look at the state-of-the-art facility, Salazar said.

"Once we get inmates in, we can't do that," he said.

During one tour, workers could be seen bustling around the 584,000-square-foot penitentiary and surrounding 640-acre grounds, working on last-minute preparations.

Prison authorities have gone to great lengths to ensure tight security in and around the penitentiary. So much so that photographs on the compound are not allowed, despite repeated requests by the Arizona Daily Star.

A miniature city

The Tucson penitentiary is part of what the Bureau of Prisons calls a Federal Correctional Complex. It includes the penitentiary, a 120-bed minimum-security work camp that will provide labor for the complex's day-to-day operations, and the medium-security Federal Correctional Institute at 8901 S. Wilmot, north of the new facilities.

A total of 520 people will be working at the three facilities, Salazar said.

Heavy steel doors are everywhere — in cells, at entrances and exits, and at intervals along the two hallways that stretch for nearly a third of a mile through the housing areas.

Many of the steel doors are reinforced with steel plates and thick bars.

Cameras are everywhere, most of them controlled remotely from a central, state-of-the art control room.

The complex includes just about everything that the prisoners will need: a big kitchen and cafeteria, medical and dental clinics, a commissary, visitation areas, and a chapel.

"It's kind of like its own little city," Salazar said.

A prison-industry building is at the eastern end of the complex. When activated, it will provide a way for prisoners who earn "the privilege to work" a chance to learn a trade and earn some pocket money, he said.

Inmates will do most of the work required to run the penitentiary, under the supervision of its staff.

Between the two housing areas is the yard, a large outdoor area where prisoners can play sports, exercise or just take stretch their legs.

Officials at the penitentiary encourage prisoners to engage in cardiovascular activity to improve their health, Salazar said.

"We do not have piles of weights," he said.

Corrections officers will keep an eye on everything that goes on in the yard from the vantage point of a 30-foot tower in the middle of the yard.

Six guard towers rise some 50 feet from the desert floor around the perimeter of the penitentiary, which is surrounded by tall chain-link fences topped with razor-sharp concertina wire.

Those numerous safeguards should make escapes "few and far between," Salazar said.

Growing pains

That is comforting news to Bill Walton, who lives just north of the penitentiary.

Walton said he and his neighbors have some reservations about living near a high-security prison. But the more direct concern, he said, is the traffic that's generated by the new prison facilities and residential development going up along that stretch of South Wilmot.

"The traffic there on Wilmot is just unreal," Walton said. "You can hardly get around out here now."

● Contact reporter Tim Ellis at 807-8414 or at tellis@azstarnet.com.