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Supermax prisons: America's own gulag

The European Court of Human Right’s extraordinary decision that a lifetime of solitary confinement in a “supermax” prison in the United States would not amount to a violation of human rights flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In sanctioning the extradition of Abu Hamza, Babar Ahmad and three others on terrorism charges, the ECHR is condoning the most brutal form of confinement that some say is worse than being held at Guantanamo.

ADX Florence, a federal jail in Colorado, where the alleged suspects are heading for unless they win an appeal, is a so-called “supermax” prison where inmates are held under conditions that the New York lawyers association clearly views as inhuman. In a report last year, its committee on international human rights said:

These prisoners endure conditions of extreme sensory deprivation for months or years on end, an excruciating experience in which the prisoner remains isolated from any meaningful human contact. Access to a telephone, books, magazines, radio, television, even sunlight and outside air may be denied or severely restricted.

The policy of supermax confinement, on the scale which it is currently being implemented in the United States, violates basic human rights. We believe that in many cases supermax confinement constitutes torture under international law according to international jurisprudence and cruel and unusual punishment under the US Constitution.

The organisation Solitary Watch says that based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.

Outside of supermax prisons, there is evidence of thousands of inmates with mental illness being held in solitary confinement and in one shocking case, shackled to the bed. Many are in prison simply because of cuts to mental health services and receive no treatment once behind bars.

A CBS report in 2009 described ADX Florence as a “21st century Alcatraz”, while a former warden told the programme that it was “a clean version of hell”.

The majority of ADX Florence is underground. Each cell has a desk, a stool, and a bed, which are almost entirely made out of poured concrete. Rooms may also be fitted with polished steel mirrors bolted to the wall, an electric light, a radio, and a black and white television which is remotely controlled and showing designated programmes.

The windows are designed to prevent inmates from knowing their specific location within the complex. Inmates exercise in a concrete pit resembling an empty swimming pool, also designed to prevent them from knowing their location in the facility. Communication with the outside world is forbidden, and food is hand-delivered by prison officers.

The New York bar association’s report finds that supermax confinement “is largely immunized from judicial review” and that what takes place in the institutions is regarded as “permissible treatment” under current case law. In other words, this is an extra-judicial process as used by dictatorships around the world.

While the ECHR judges found that if convicted, the holding of the suspects in supermax conditions would be acceptable, it is left to New York’s lawyers to uphold the rule of law and human rights:

The unmitigated suffering caused by supermax confinement, however, cannot be justified by the argument that it is an effective means to deal with difficult prisoners or is effective at controlling and punishing unruly inmates. Instead, the question is whether the vast archipelago of American supermax facilities, in which some prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely for years, should be tolerated as consistent with fundamental principles of justice. Even prisoners who have committed horrific crimes and atrocities possess basic rights to humane treatment under national and international law.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
10 April 2012

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