Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘florence supermax

Ghailani May Spend Life in Florence Supermax

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As I’ve noted before, the War on Crime and the War on Terror have a lot of overlap. So, for students of mass incarceration, I wanted to highlight some particularly relevant snippets from the past few days’ coverage of the Ghailani verdict.

(1) Supermax, solitary confinement, and the politics of terror trials. Guantanamo military prosecutor Morris Davis has published this op-ed defending the verdict as just. Although his argument focuses mainly on procedural issues having to do with the trial itself, he also addresses Ghailani’s likely punishment:

Mr. Ghailani may well serve his sentence at the “supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colo., where others convicted in the embassy bombings are confined. If so, he will spend more time in solitary and enjoy fewer privileges than those under the most restrictive measures at Guantánamo.

Of course, this is the same supermax that proponents of keeping Guantanamo open (most of whom aren’t exactly prison experts) have claimed is incapable of holding terror detainees. At least one prisoner has been held there in solitary confinement for decades, conditions that many psychologists don’t hesitate to call torture.

(2) The devalued currency of the life sentence? Here’s Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution: Read the rest of this entry »

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European High Court: U.S. Prisons Could Violate European Convention on Human Rights

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UPDATE: Lots more details on this case available over at Solitary Watch.

The European Court of Human Rights has issued a preliminary ruling barring the extradition of three terror suspects from the U.K. to the United States, on the grounds that confinement in a federal supermax could violate Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court has requested further submissions before it issues a final decision; the preliminary ruling can be downloaded here. Note that the court rejected the suspects’ arguments that they would not receive a fair trial in the U.S.; it focused entirely on post-trial conditions of confinement, specifically the prospect of long-term solitary confinement and a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Here are the questions on which the court has requested further briefing:

  • Given the length of the sentences faced by Mr Ahmad, Mr Aswat and Mr Ahsan if convicted, would the time spent at a “supermax” prison, the US Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum, Florence, Colorado (“ADX Florence”), amount to a violation of Article 3? Would they have any real prospect of entering the “step-down programme” whereby they would move through different levels of contact with others until they would be suitable for transfer to a normal prison?
  • Does the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment”), as interpreted by the federal courts, provide protection equivalent to Article 3 of the Convention?
  • If convicted, would the applicants’ sentences be de facto reducible?

DOJ Plans to Buy Illinois Prison Whether or Not It’s Approved for Terror Detainees

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According to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, the Obama Administration will move forward with plans to purchase a prison facility in rural Thomson, Ill., whether or not Congress approves the transfer of Guantanamo detainees there. The DOJ has asked for $237 million in appropriations in next year’s budget to buy and begin using the facility to hold high-security federal inmates. Rep. Don Manzullo (R – IL), who represents northern Illinois in Congress, publicly supports the new federal prison as a way of creating jobs, but has been critical of plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees there, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Here I’ll just note a few related points; make of them what you will: 1) As I noted the other day, prisons actually haven’t been found to boost local economies, or to create as many jobs as hoped; 2) I’ve never quite understood why people are so worried about bringing the remaining Guantanamo detainees into the U.S., considering that the federal supermax in Colorado already holds some pretty dangerous folks; 3) Is this the start of a federal prison mini-boom? As the Pew Center on the States reported this week, although state prison populations have fallen in over half the states, the federal prison population is growing:

The survey found that the federal prison population continued to grow, rising by 6,838 prisoners, or 3.4 percent, to an all-time high of 208,118. Expanded federal jurisdiction over certain crimes and increased prosecution of immigration cases account for much of the increase.

A SHU By Any Other Name…

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CNN has this report today on Tommy Silverstein, who murdered a federal prison guard in 1983 and has been held in solitary confinement in Colorado’s federal supermax prison ever since — i.e., for 27 years. (So another way of putting it is that Tommy Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for the exact number of years that your humble blogger has been on this Earth.) With the help of attorneys from the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic, Silverstein is suing the federal government for violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Anyway, the more chilling part of the article is the Bureau of Prisons‘ somewhat Orwellian insistence on word choice:

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says “solitary confinement,” a term widely used by prison advocacy groups and attorneys, doesn’t exist in federal prisons. Instead, authorities call the isolated cells where inmates are housed the SHU: special housing units.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross estimates that on any given day, 11,150 of the 200,000 federal inmates are kept in special housing units. The reasons for confinement vary from protecting a witness to disciplinary measures.

It seems to me that if the BOP wants to defend the practice, that’s one thing, but it’s somewhat bizarre to deny that a person who is being held in a cell by himself, without contact with other people, is well within the dictionary meaning of “solitary confinement,” regardless of what term the BOP prefers to use for its own internal purposes. By the way, if you missed Atul Gawande’s must-read New Yorker article on the psychological ramifications of solitary confinement, you can download it here.

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