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Supermax - torture in US prisons

Solitary confinement is commonplace in US prisons. Most US states have over the last 30 years introduced specialised new segregation facilities, often referred to as "supermax." Around 80,000 people are estimated to be incarcerated in facilities of this sort. But although supermax units are widespread across the various US state prison systems, there is just one federal supermax prison – the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Colorado. The prisoners held there include persistent escapers, convicted mobsters and men convicted of terrorism offences.

ADX Florence has beds for around 500 prisoners and is part of a much larger federal prison complex. No one has ever escaped from ADX Florence, nor have there been any serious escape attempts. A former prison guard once described it as a "cleaner version of hell."

Prisoners are confined to single cells for around 22-23 hours a day. Virtually everything in the cells, including the bed, is made from concrete. There is a fireproof mattress on the bed. Windows provide natural light, but are arranged so that only the sky can be seen through them. Prisoners eat their meals in their cells.

The most rigorous section of the prison is H-Unit. It is used to house prisoners who have been put under "Special Administration Measures" (SAMs). Cells in this unit are of about 75.5 square feet. Prisoners are said to be allowed a minimum of 7 hours exercise out-of-cell exercise per week. This is an improvement on conditions a few years ago, when only 5 hours out-of-cell exercise was allowed. Prisoners exercise alone, in individual recreation areas.

Prisoners can remain under SAMs for many years. Shoebomber Richard Reid (who prefers to be known as Abu Esa Abdul-Raheem) was under SAMs for the first six and a half years of his sentence. He brought a lawsuit challenging the conditions of his confinement, but this was dismissed in January 2010. Like other prisoners held under SAMs, he had almost no contact with the outside world apart from lawyers and close family.

According to an affidavit filed by the prison in response to the lawsuit, he was permitted "to communicate with other SAM inmates orally only during certain predesignated times, in a place and for a duration set by the Bureau [FBI]." He was only allowed to read books approved by the FBI. He was not allowed access to TV and radio channels that "primarily broadcast news." Affidavits filed in the case provide a great deal of other background about conditions in ADX Florence.

You will die with a whimper

Cells in the General Population Unit are of about 86 square feet. General Population prisoners are said to be allowed at least 10 hours of out-of-cell exercise per week. They exercise in isolation. According the affidavit filed by the prison in Richard Reid's case, General Population Unit prisoners are allowed to "communicate with other ADX General Population Unit inmates during recreation periods."

At least one US court has hinted that life under supermax conditions is torture. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema told convicted 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, apparently in anticipation of his transfer to ADX Florence, that "to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot, you will die with a whimper."

Isolation makes prisoners vulnerable to other forms of abuse. Three prison guards were convicted in 2003 of beating prisoners at ADX Florence. 52 acts of abuse against 20 or more prisoners were included in the indictment, filed in November 2000. The defendants were said to have covered up the abuse by fabricating records and other evidence and pressuring fellow officers to keep quiet. A former union official has claimed that the prison management knew about the beatings and that at least 30 guards were involved.

ADX Florence is notoriously media-shy. Journalist Alex Hannaford toured Guantanamo in 2010. But this year the ADX Florence authorities turned down his request to tour their prison. They also refused to let him interview either prisoners or prison wardens ("correctional officers"). So he gleaned what he could from prisoners' letters to him, and turned up in Florence, Colorado to talk to correctional officers he had contacted through the American Federation of Government Employees. His article was published in the Sunday Times (Alcatraz of the Rockies, 18 March 2012; available online only to Sunday Times subscribers).

This is hell. I can't say it any clearer than that

One of the prisoners with whom Alex Hannaford corresponded was an American who asked for his name to be withheld; he is referred to as 'John.'

'John' wrote:

"There is very little reason to leave the cell. Almost everything you can think of is in [here]. It is very high tech; for instance to communicate with the officers I have an intercom box. I just hit the button and they answer. Any notices are posted on a closed-circuit channel on my TV…It is what it is. Real tough. But I'm a man and I deal with it. I don't complain."

He wrote that visits are:

"only immediate family, non-contact – we are in different rooms, separated by glass – and again they are monitored live. Even though you are in a secure room, you spend the entire visit in leg shackles, waist chain and handcuffs.

"Since I have been in here I have literally seen people break and go crazy. They just snap and self-destruct. When it gets bad the medical department comes and gets them and just ships them off to prison hospital. You know what happened because the guy will just start screaming like he is being murdered. It will go on and on.

"You have to be very strong to survive this. The conditions we are under are just not natural. I keep my mind busy. I read a ton of books, take correspondence courses. I do everything I can to ensure that I leave a better person than when I came here. But this is hell. I can't say it any clearer than that."

Many of the prison officers are former soldiers. 'John' wrote:

"Some of these guys are very young, just come back from Iraq and Afghanistan; seen their buddies get killed. Now they are in a unit with a hundred guys who they were told were the enemy."

Another prisoner, Richard McNair, wrote:

"I hate this place with all my heart and I kick myself in the ass for doing anything to get sent here. The problem is the lack of outside stimulation. One phone call a month if you are not on restriction. Only the sky to see of the outside world. No conversation. Everything restricted. Then there's the noise; some of the knuckleheads scream for hours on end. No one should have to live like this."

Journalist Susan Greene has also been corresponding with ADX Florence prisoners, as well as with prisoners held in solitary confinement elsewhere in the US. Her article was published as a Dart Society Report in January 2012 (The Gray Box: An investigative look at solitary confinement ).

Osiel Rodriguez, a prisoner apparently in a General Population Unit at ADX Florence, wrote to her:

"I got it in my head to destroy all my photographs. I spent some five hours ripping each one to pieces. No one was safe. I did not save one of my mother, father, sisters. Who are those people anyway?”

He explained:

"Looking at photos of the free world caused me so much pain that I just couldn’t do it any more. Time and these conditions are breaking me down.

"After 14 years, those people are strangers to me; as I must be to them. My parents will be dust if/when I ever get out of prison. My three sisters will be in their mid-70’s to late 60’s. So what was I doing holding on to photos of moments I was not a part of, or know nothing about?”

Jeremy Pinson, another ADX Florence prisoner, wrote:

“Ninety percent of the time you hear nothing but the sound of air from the ventilation. The silence can drive you crazy. Makes you feel as if the world has ended but you somehow survived and are tripped”

A former ADX prisoner, Mark Jordan , wrote:

"This is difficult to explain, but my memories were no longer mine. I questioned whether or not I really had a past or history at all, whether the memories were real or false. … It was as though none of it was real. I was born into this life of isolation and the memories not memories at all. Confabulations.”

ADX Florence prisoner Jack Powers described a similar sense of excruciating alienation. He wrote:

"The world outside is like another planet. I feel like I am trapped within a disease.”

And in another letter he wrote:

"I miss being around people. I miss being able to run on the track or walk on grass or feel the sun on my face. One time I kept a single green leaf alive for a few weeks. And one time I had grasshopper for a pet. And one time I made a dwarf tree out of yarn from a green winter hat, paper and dried tea bags. I made a guitar out of milk cartons, and it played quite well. I invented a perfect family – mom, dad and sister – so that we could interact and love one another. One time I wanted to take a bath, so I got into a garbage bag and put water in it and sat there. For a while I made vases out of toilet paper and soap and ink from a pen. I have done a thousand and one things to replicate ordinary life, but these too are now gone.”

It's easy to overlook the enormity of what is done to the prisoners in ADX Florence and other Supermax jails. Prison is tough. So what's new?

Sit quietly and imagine. Imagine an hour in one of those concrete cells. Then imagine a whole day. A week. A month. A year. Five years…

When the imagination fails, it's easy to play with moral puzzles instead. To wonder how the suffering of these men should be balanced against the suffering of the victims of those of them jailed for acts of violence. International law has pretty much answered that question. Long-term solitary confinement is torturous and cruel and therefore illegal. Period.

Violates well-established international law

Human rights experts joined prisoners, former prisoners and intellectuals in December 2010 in issuing a statement on solitary confinement and isolation that said "we believe that enforced long-term isolation in all circumstances breaches Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states 'no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.'"

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, told the UN last October:

"Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit (SHU)… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique."

He proposed an absolute prohibition on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.

A report last September by the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association said that "supermax confinement as practiced in the United States violates well-established international law."

The report says "no other country uses supermax confinement as broadly and systematically as does the United States."

The European Court of Human Rights is currently considering appeals against extradition to the US by a number of British citizens accused by the US of terrorism. They include Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. The main charges against these men appear to relate to activities that might better be described as internet activism. If convicted in the US, it is certain that they will be sent to ADX Florence. Talha Ahsan suffers from Asberger's Syndrome, which will compound the suffering and psychological damage produced by supermax confinement. The men's claim that extradition to solitary confinement would violate their rights under international law is the central issue being considered by the court.

If ADX Florence was situated in any of the 47 countries that make up the Council of Europe (a body that includes the Russian Federation, Turkey and the Ukraine and is distinct from the EU) there can be no doubt that it would be judged illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. It only remains for the court to decide whether European citizens can lawfully be sent to the US to risk being jailed under conditions outlawed in Europe.

There is already a European prohibition on the extradition of anyone at risk of execution, which is banned in Europe. The prohibition on long-term solitary confinement is clearer than the ban on capital punishment, being a worldwide, not merely a European, interpretation of international law. The court appears to have little choice but to block the extradition of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan and their co-appellants, despite the irritation this is likely to cause in the US. The decision, when it comes, should be a wake-up call to the US to put its house in order.

Update: the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Babar Ahmad, Haroon Rashid Aswat, Syed Tahla Ahsan and Mustafa Kamal Mustafa (Abu Hamza) will be handed down on 10 April 2012.