The US government’s practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement in the country’s only federal super-maximum security prison amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is in violation of international law, Amnesty International says in a new report today published on 16 July.
The 50-page report - Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison - reveals the severity of conditions faced by prisoners at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum facility near the city of Florence in the state of Colorado (known as ADX Florence).
With inmates spending an average of eight years (according to one study) in conditions of extreme isolation, Amnesty is warning that this is having a dramatic effect on the physical and psychological health of prisoners who are being held in solitary cells for up to 24 hours a day.
Most ADX Florence prisoners have been convicted of serious offences in jail, such as assault, murder or attempted escape, while others have been convicted of terrorism offences. However, the severity of conditions in ADX Florence has caused prisoners to suffer from extreme paranoia, perceptual distortions, psychosis, depression, insomnia and hypertension, while some prisoners have self-harmed or committed suicide.
In September 2013, a prisoner with a history of mental illness hanged himself in his cell after reportedly spending more than a decade at ADX Florence with only intermittent mental health care. He suffered psychotic symptoms which had allegedly been ignored in the days before his death.
The severity of conditions has already prompted international concern. During a long legal battle to avoid extradition to the USA, lawyers for Babar Ahmad, a British man of Pakistani origin, argued that he should not be extradited partly because of the harshness of supermax detention in the USA.
There are now worrying signs that the US intends to expand its use of solitary confinement in federal jails, with a planned new supermax prison in Illinois - Thomson Correctional Center - set to include solitary confinement similar to the regime at ADX Florence.
Amnesty International’s Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas said: “You cannot overestimate the devastating impact long periods of solitary confinement can have on the mental and physical well-being of a prisoner.
“The use of such forms of solitary confinement goes beyond legitimate correctional measures and strays into cruel and inhuman treatment.
“Such harsh treatment is happening as a daily practice in the US, and it is in breach of international law.
“This is the ultimate form of warehousing prisoners and the idea that the US government is planning to expand the practice in the face of international concern is truly worrying.
“The US government must ensure that solitary confinement is only ever used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort and should never be used for prolonged or indefinite periods of time.”
The ADX Florence federal facility has a capacity for 490 male inmates. Prisoners spend a minimum of 12 months in solitary confinement before they may become eligible for a reduction in the restrictions of their detention. In reality, many spend much longer in isolation. One study produced by lawyers found the average length of time an inmate would spend in isolation was 8.2 years.
Most inmates are held in cells with solid walls and a barred, air-lock-style chamber in front of a solid-metal door to ensure they have no contact with other prisoners. One small slit of a window allows them a view of the sky or a brick wall. Furniture in the cells is made of poured concrete and consists of a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet. Meals and showers are taken inside the cells and medical consultations, including mental health checks, are often conducted remotely through teleconferencing.
The practice of prolonged solitary confinement is not limited to ADX Florence, and other federal facilities also confine prisoners in prolonged isolation in so-called Special Management Units. In some cases prisoners are held in isolation even before their trials. The Metropolitan Correction Centre in New York, also known as “Little Gitmo”, is used to house pre-trial detainees in solitary confinement for months or even years before they face trial. Detainees have little access to natural light and no provision for outdoor exercise.
Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, has called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.
Amnesty visited the ADX Florence facility in 2001 but since then all visit requests have been denied. The organisation says information in the report has been gathered through a range of sources, including court documents available through lawsuits and other information provided by attorneys representing inmates, as well as policy directives issued by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.