Arizona's Worst Criminal

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Prison officials won't allow him to hang photographs or memorabilia of any kind on his walls. Beneath the bed are boxes of legal and other reading materials. Near the front of the cell is a metal toilet and small wash basin, with a few other sanitary items lined up above it. A tiny mirror is attached to the wall above the basin.

The four other cells in Comer's pod also have a small stool and metal "desk" attached to the wall near the sink. But a few years ago, prison officials removed those items from Comer's cell because he somehow was fashioning shanks from them. (He's apparently put his shank-making on hold since last May, when he made the one in tribute to the anniversary of Robert Vickers' 1999 execution.)

Comer and the others in his pod wear headphones when listening to the radio or watching television. That makes for an eerie silence, punctuated only by the occasional clanging of the metal doors.

To add to the isolation, the front of Comer's cell is metal mesh with a small slot that opens and closes for food and other deliveries. Another inmate on SMU II once compared it to looking out at life -- a blank concrete wall in this instance -- through a colander.

Attached to the mesh is a supposedly unbreakable Plexiglas-like covering called Lexan, designed to keep dangerous prisoners such as Comer from having access to passersby with blow darts, zip guns and the like.

Because of the covering on all five cells in his pod, Comer cannot converse easily with his peers. He says it's like talking with cotton balls in his ears, so he doesn't say much to anyone.

Every non-prisoner who steps into Comer's pod must wear a protective jacket and safety glasses.

He is allowed three hourlong "recreational periods" -- by himself -- each week in an enclosed outdoor space near his pod. It looks like a handball court with a metal-mesh ceiling. (Prison officials may provide a handball to inmates.) He may take three showers, each lasting up to 45 minutes.

Comer is allowed one five-minute phone call weekly, and may receive approved visitors for two hours, once weekly. He may visit with his attorney twice weekly, for up to three hours.

Whenever Comer leaves his pod, officers handcuff and shackle him to a gurney, then move him, face down. They also fit him with a stun belt, which zaps him if he makes sudden, pronounced movements.

Spending time in Comer's cell feels like being trapped in a tomb: It's easy to understand why he walks endlessly, and why he says he tries not to dwell much about life outside his box.

SMU II isn't for anyone, really, including Comer, but he's adapted to life here as well as anyone could. Physically, this super-max is a safer place for those around Comer, and for the inmate himself. Mentally, he seems as normal as any violent career criminal that one might ever meet.

Instead of having to watch his back every second, Comer dabbles with crossword puzzles, writing letters to Amy Young, perusing his legal papers, and watching the tube.

"I am not Hannibal Lecter, but I'm not that far away from being him, either, under the right circumstances," he tells New Times. "Know what I mean?"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin