[Ppnews] US Prisons are Challenged in European Court of Human Rights

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 12 13:49:50 EDT 2010


July 12, 2010

US Prisons are Challenged in European Court of 
Human Rights...and Lose the First Round

Supermax Takes a Hit


The Federal Penitentiary Administrative Maximum 
("ADX") in Florence, Colorado, where conditions 
may violate the European Convention on Human 
Rights' prohibition against "torture or inhuman and degrading treatment"

For years, four British nationals have been 
fighting against their extradition to the United 
States to face various terrorism charges, arguing 
that such a move would place them at risk of 
human right violations, as defined by the 1950 
European Convention on Human Rights. When courts 
in the UK ruled against the four men, they took 
their cause to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Among other things, the British suspects have 
argued that if extradited, they could face a 
lifetime of solitary confinement under “special 
administrative measures” (SAMs), most likely at 
ADX Florence, the notorious federal supermax 
prison in Colorado. Such confinement, they 
contend, would violate Article 3 of the European 
Convention on Human Rights, which states: “No one 
shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or 
degrading treatment or punishment.”

The UK sought to have the suspects’ complaint 
dismissed. But today, the European Court of Human 
Rights “declared admissible” the portions of the 
complaint dealing with supermax conditions, as 
well as with life sentences without the possibility of parole.

A press release issued earlier today by the 
Registrar of the European Court summarized the 
case (Babar Ahmad and Others v. the United Kingdom) this way:

The applicants alleged in particular that, 
despite the diplomatic assurances provided by the 
United States, they were at risk, if extradited, 
of being subjected to an unfair trial–due to the 
use of evidence obtained through torture and/or 
of coercive plea bargaining–at the conclusion of 
which they could be designated as enemy 
combatants. They also alleged that, once 
extradited, they were at risk of extraordinary 
rendition and life imprisonment without parole 
and/or extremely long sentences in a “supermax” 
prison such as ADX Florence where special 
administrative measures would be applied to them. 
They relied on Articles 2 (right to life), 3 
(prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), 
5 (right to liberty and security), 6 (right to a 
fair trial), 8 (right to respect for private and 
family life) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination).

Based on promises made by the United States, the 
Court ruled that if extradited, the British 
suspects would not be at risk of extraordinary 
rendition, of being tried as enemy combatants, or 
of unfair trials or discrimination. It had also 
received assurances that the suspects would not 
face the death penalty. When it came to 
confinement for life in Florence ADX, however, 
the Court found a credible case could might be 
made that such punishment would violate the European Convention.

The Court requested further briefing on a number 
of questions, including the following, before it issues its final ruling:

Given the length of the sentences faced by [three 
of the four suspects] 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?

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?

The four British terrorism suspects are 
represented by the firm of renowned British human 
rights lawyer Gareth Peirce (who wrote about the 
here). The information presented to the European 
Court on Human Rights on their behalf reads like 
a rundown of evidence for the torturous nature of 
solitary confinement in general, and lockdown at ADX Florence in particular.

Following are the relevant paragraphs from the Court’s decision.

90. The applicants relied on a series of 
newspaper articles on ADX Florence, including a 
Time magazine article of 5 November 2006 
described spartan cells and almost no contact 
between prisoners and other people, since food, 
mail and laundry were passed through a slot in 
the cell door. Prisoners were strip-searched 
before they were allowed to exercise. There were 
also staff shortages which caused irregular meal 
times, reduced telephone calls and exercise time. 
A television interview with a former warden also 
described frequent force-feeding as a result of 
hunger strikes by prisoners in protest at their conditions.

91. The applicants also provided a report by a 
psychiatrist, Dr Terry Kupers, which had been 
prepared specifically for the present 
proceedings. He considered that a supermax prison 
regime did not amount to sensory deprivation but 
there was an almost total lack of meaningful 
human communication. This tended to induce a 
range of psychological symptoms ranging from 
panic to psychosis and emotional breakdown. All 
studies into the effects of supermax detention 
had found such symptoms after sixty days’ 
detention. Once such symptoms presented, it was 
not sufficient to return someone to normal prison 
conditions in order to remedy them. If supermax 
detention were imposed for an indeterminate 
period it also led to chronic despair. 
Approximately half of suicides in prison involved 
the 6-8% of prisoners held in such conditions. 
The effects of supermax conditions were worse for 
someone with pre-existing mental health problems. 
Dr Kuper’s conclusions were supported by a number 
of journal articles by psychologists and 
criminologists, which the applicants provided.

92. The applicants also provided a copy of the 
Istanbul statement on the use and effects of 
solitary confinement, which was adopted at the 
International Psychological Trauma Symposium in 
December 2007. Its participants included the 
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. The 
statement included the following on the effects of solitary confinement:

“it has been convincingly documented on numerous 
occasions that solitary confinement may cause 
serious psychological and sometimes physiological 
ill effects. Research suggests that between 
one-third and as many as 90 per cent of prisoners 
experience adverse symptoms in solitary 
confinement. A long list of symptoms ranging from 
insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and 
psychosis has been documented. Negative health 
effects can occur after only a few days in 
solitary confinement, and the health risks rise 
with each additional day spent in such conditions.

Individuals may react to solitary confinement 
differently. Still. a significant number of 
individuals will experience serious health 
problems regardless of the specific conditions, 
regardless of lime and place, and regardless of 
pre-existing personal factors. The central 
harmful feature of solitary confinement is that 
it reduces meaningful social contact to a level 
of social and psychological stimulus that many 
will experience as insufficient to sustain health and well-being.

The use of solitary confinement in remand prisons 
carries with it another harmful dimension since 
the detrimental effects will often create a de 
facto situation of psychological pressure which 
can influence the pretrial detainees lo plead 
guilty. When the element of psychological 
pressure is used on purpose as part of isolation 
regimes such practices become coercive and can amount to torture.”

93. The applicants also submitted a report from 
the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of 
Denver, which had acted for a number of prisoners 
at ADX Florence. The report noted that conditions 
were even more severe for those prisoners who 
were subjected to special administrative 
measures. For example, such prisoners could only 
communicate with his “attorney of record”. This 
made it impossible to contact an attorney to 
request representation to challenge special 
administrative measures. Requests made directly 
to the court to have an attorney appointed were 
denied. There had been no successful challenges 
to designation to ADX Florence and challenges 
could only succeed where confinement in supermax 
affected the prisoner’s date of release or where 
he was severely mentally ill. The report accepted 
that the step-down programme could take a minimum 
of three years but prisoners could be removed 
from it and returned to “general population” if 
they were found guilty of misconduct or for 
“administrative reasons”. The report highlighted 
the cases of several Muslim prisoners who had 
fulfilled all of the criteria for admission to 
the step-down programme except for the 
requirement that the original reasons for 
placement at ADX Florence be “sufficiently 
mitigated”. However, several prisoners had only 
been transferred from lower security prisons to 
ADX Florence after 11 September 2001 (despite no 
evidence of their involvement in the attacks) and 
thus it was difficult for them to demonstrate 
that the reason for their placement had been 
mitigated. Two Muslim clients of the Civil Rights 
Center had spent respectively five and ten years 
in general population units but had not been 
admitted to the step-down programme. Another had 
spent five years in a general population unit and 
had only been admitted after retaining the Center in a lawsuit.

94. Both the applicants and Government made 
reference to a letter dated 2 May 2007 from Human 
Rights Watch to the Director of the Federal 
Bureau of Prisons which followed a tour the 
organisation had been given of ADX Florence. The 
letter expressed concerns that a number of 
prisoners convicted of terrorism offences had 
been sent to the prison based on the nature of 
their crimes and, despite good conduct since 
their arrival, had remained in general population 
units and thus outside the step-down programme 
for up to nine years. The letter made suggestions 
for improvement in respect of recreation, mail, 
telephone use, the library. It also noted that 
progress was to be made on better meeting 
prisoners’ religious needs, such as the provision 
of a full-time imam and commended the educational 
programmes available through the prison’s 
television system. The letter urged the prison 
authorities to investigate reports of retaliation 
against prisoners who were on hunger strike in 
the form of transfer to harsher cells. The letter 
also said that Human Rights Watch was extremely 
concerned about the effects of long-term 
isolation and highly limited exercise on the 
mental health of prisoners and criticised reports 
of rushed consultations between prisoners and 
psychologists, as well as the fact that 
evaluations were carried out via closed circuit television.

95. The applicants obtained a second letter from 
Human Rights Watch, dated 21 August 2008, which 
stated that Human Rights Watch considered 
conditions at ADX violated the United States’ 
treaty obligations under the International 
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 
United Nations Convention Against Torture. It was 
unremarkable that “minor adjustments” had been 
made to the regime but it remained in essence one 
of “long-term and indefinite incarceration in 
conditions of extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation”.

96. Human Rights Watch’s second letter also 
provided extracts from two United Nations reports 
from 2006 on supermax detention. In the first, 
the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated:

“The Committee reiterates its concern that 
conditions in some maximum security prisons are 
incompatible with the obligation contained in 
article 10 (1) of the Covenant to treat detainees 
with humanity and respect for the inherent 
dignity of the human person. It is particularly 
concerned by the practice in some such 
institutions to hold detainees in prolonged 
cellular confinement, and to allow them 
out-of-cell recreation for only five hours per 
week, in general conditions of strict 
regimentation in a depersonalized environment. It 
is also concerned that such treatment cannot be 
reconciled with the requirement in article 10 (3) 
that the penitentiary system shall comprise 
treatment the essential aim of which shall be the 
reformation and social rehabilitation of 
prisoners. It also expresses concern about the 
reported high numbers of severely mentally ill 
persons in these prisons, as well as in regular in [sic] U.S. jails.

The State party should scrutinize conditions of 
detention in prisons, in particular in maximum 
security prisons, with a view to guaranteeing 
that persons deprived of their liberty be treated 
in accordance with the requirements of article ID 
of the Covenant and the United Nations Standard 
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”

97. The second report was from the United Nations 
Committee Against Torture, which stated:

“The Committee remains concerned about the 
extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in 
‘supermaximum prisons’. The Committee is 
concerned about the prolonged isolation periods 
detainees are subjected to, the effect such 
treatment has on their mental health, and that 
its purpose may be retribution, in which case it 
would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading 
treatment or punishment (art. 16). The State 
party should review the regime imposed on 
detainees in ‘supermaximum prisons’, in 
particular the practice of prolonged isolation.”

For more on ADX Florence, see 60 Minutes, 
A Clean Version of Hell” and the ADX page at 

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway edit 
where this article originally appeared.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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