On September 24, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) bowed to pressure from the US and British governments and turned a blind eye to the torturous conditions at the federal Supermax prison, ADX (short for Administrative Maximum), in Florence, Colorado, where prisoners languish in long-term solitary confinement. Dealing a blow to human rights on both sides of the Atlantic, the court rejected an appeal by five terror suspects held in Britain to block their extradition to the United States. The filing in Babar Ahmad and Others v. UK argued that if the defendants are convicted, the conditions of their confinement at ADX would violate their human rights.
While the prison at Guantánamo Bay has long attracted global condemnation, the United States has been more successful in shrouding domestic facilities like ADX from public view. The European Court allowed itself to be misled—accepting facts and figures roundly disputed by human rights advocates and researchers and ignoring an intervention submitted by the UN special rapporteur on torture.
Opened in 1994 and described by a former warden as a “clean version of hell,” ADX was originally conceived by the Bureau of Prisons as a “behavior management” facility. Prisoners “earned their way in” through bad or dangerous behavior at other prisons (and could conceivably earn their way out). But after 9/11, BOP made any link to “terrorist activities” grounds for incarceration at ADX. And so with the proliferation of these “material support” prosecutions, the prison that holds Ted Kaczynski, Terry Nichols and Robert Hanssen has also become a prison that disproportionately holds Muslim prisoners (even those convicted on charges involving no specific plots, such as Fahad Hashmi, Dritan Duka, Oussama Kassir and Seifullah Chapman).
The most restrictive prison in the federal system, ADX was built to keep every prisoner in solitary confinement and designed to limit all communication among prisoners. Cells are the size of a small bathroom with thick concrete walls and steel doors. A prisoner must eat, sleep, shower, read, pray and use the toilet in the cell. For one hour a day, prisoners may exercise in an outdoor cage too small to run in or in a windowless indoor cell, empty except for a pull-up bar. The outdoor “recreation” cages are known as “dog runs” because they resemble kennels. The only “contact” ADX prisoners have with other inmates is shouting to each other through toilets, vents or the outdoor cages. They receive food through a slot and eat every meal alone within arm’s length of their toilet. Psychiatric care at ADX often consists of shouting to prisoners through their doors to inquire if they’re “OK.”
The isolation at ADX is even more severe for prisoners placed under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), issued by the attorney general when “there is substantial risk that a prisoner’s communications…could result in death or serious bodily injury.” No further justification is required. Disproportionately used on terror suspects—and likely to be used on Ahmad et al.—SAMs typically prohibit communication with anyone except attorneys or immediate family. Letters to and from family can take up to six months to be cleared by the government; no other nonlegal correspondence is allowed. Lawyers and family members risk prosecution if they publicly disclose any detail from conversations with a prisoner—thereby shielding any ill treatment from view or sanction. Conditions for SAM prisoners at ADX have prompted hunger strikes and forced feeding, but the public hasn’t learned about them because of this wall of secrecy. Portions of declarations from SAM prisoners describing their treatment have been put under seal by the court at the government’s request.