Shortly after WNBA superstar Brittney Griner headed home following a prison swap for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, media outlets from The New York Times to Politico to Time delved into Bout’s life, publishing sordid tales of his gun-running and alleged history selling arms to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Liberia’s Charles Taylor.
In the 10 months after Russia detained Griner for possession of two cartridges of cannabis oil, the media also covered the grim conditions in Russian prisons and how the government prevents the press from exposing what happens there. There was a well-founded fear that Griner would be treated inhumanely and isolated and that the brutal conditions of her stay would be kept secret. The Russian penal system is deservedly notorious.
But in all the coverage, there was a glaring refusal to ask a crucial question: What happens when the United States locks up an adversary in America’s prisons and jails? Amid all the reporting, almost no one thought to cover what Bout experienced in his 12 years of US imprisonment. Journalists know that US prison conditions are poor and that the US boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. And the US detained Bout in a New York facility with such terrible conditions that it was ultimately shuttered.
This erasure sent a message to readers: Russia is a country with barbaric prisons, while the United States, despite its flaws, boasts a fundamentally fair and open system of incarceration. What would it mean, then, to look at US prisons and the ways the US treats its enemies and to acknowledge that the US prison system is also pernicious?
We have spent more than a dozen years as a journalist and a scholar-advocate, respectively, investigating the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Bout was first held as well as the broader treatment of people charged with terrorism-related offenses in US federal courts. The Bureau of Prisons makes it difficult to investigate its prisons and jails, shrouding their practices in secrecy for “national security” reasons. Given the restrictions imposed by the bureau, we weren’t able to correspond with the prisoners in 10 South, the high security unit where Bout was held, and lawyers couldn’t talk to us about the conditions their clients there were facing. With real-time accountability impossible, the unit was a black box.
Despite these dire circumstances, news outlets were rarely interested in stories about the MCC. Even as coverage of the criminal legal system increased dramatically, the media siloed the debate about the criminal justice system from matters of national security. We believe that the treatment of those who are deemed the country’s worst enemies delegitimizes the whole apparatus of the US criminal justice system. Prolonged solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, surveillance of all communication, restricted access to the outside world—these measures have been found to violate international human rights standards, which means the ban on their use should be absolute. If one prisoner can be subjected to these measures under the opaque and capricious determinations of the Bureau of Prisons, then any prisoner can be subjected to them. Protecting the rights of those deemed the “most dangerous” protects the rights of all.
Thai authorities arrested Bout in a DEA sting operation in 2008 and extradited him to New York in November 2010. He was sent to the MCC, in Lower Manhattan, on federal charges in the Southern District of New York. Jeffrey Epstein would later die, apparently by suicide, at the MCC, and it’s where many men facing terrorism (and other federal) charges have been detained. Before its announced closure in 2021, the MCC held people awaiting trial and disposition–in other words, people who had not yet been convicted of any crime—who were presumed innocent. Bout, like others, received notice that he was being placed in the MCC’s Special Housing Unit, where conditions are much more restricted, because he was “charged with serious criminal charges, including conspiring with terrorists organizations.”
The MCC had long been dirty and vermin-infested. It was brutally hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Prisoners reported being so cold they had trouble thinking and wore layers of clothing to sleep. They described the rodents and roaches as roommates and recalled feces flooding the floors of their cells. In lawsuits, prisoners detailed medical horrors: untreated infections caused by rat bites, and delayed medical care after a door chopped off a person’s fingertip.
Bout and others held in 10 South, the highest-security unit at the facility, were held in isolation. Prisoners spent 23 hours of their day in their cells and the last hour of their day in solitary exercise in another cell, not much bigger. There was no outside air. The light remained on 24 hours a day. Most were prohibited from speaking with other prisoners. They got their food through a door slot and bathed in their cell. The windows were frosted, so they had no view of the outside world and little natural light. Joshua Dratel, who has represented people at Guantánamo Bay as well as 10 South, told Gothamist that in some ways, the MCC was worse than Gitmo: “It’s physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally—as unaccommodating to the idea of being human as any place I’ve been.”
Bout described these conditions and their impact on his well-being in a recent Russian TV interview. He talked about the “ringing silence” when his cell door was slammed shut and the “poisonous light of fluorescent lamps.” He panicked when he was first placed in isolation at the MCC, until he realized that shouting or banging his head against the wall wouldn’t change a thing. So he committed to a different tactic: Every morning, as soon as he woke up, he spent the first five minutes laughing aloud. Laughing prevents you from getting depressed, he told the interviewer, and compels you to treat the situation like a game. Plus, he said, his captors expected detainees to resort to self-harm; it drives them crazy when you “don’t pull out your hair, don’t scratch your face, don’t try to write blood on the walls.”
After 15 months, Bout’s lawyers went to court to challenge the “barbaric” conditions he faced in 10 South. Particularly since 9/11, federal judges have been quick to acquiesce if the government cites national security as the reason for imposing indefinite isolation. In a historic decision, Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected the government’s arguments for keeping him in solitary confinement, saying, “I cannot shirk my duty under the Constitution…to ensure that Bout’s confinement is not arbitrarily and excessively harsh.” She ordered that he be removed from 10 South and placed in the jail’s general population. The ruling would not change conditions for anyone else, but it provided a moment of validation of the claim that conditions at the MCC were violating detainees’ rights.
For years, lawyers like Bout’s filed motions advocating for their clients, while incarcerated people filed administrative remedies and begged for conditions to change. A handful of researchers attempted to detail the realities at the MCC in legal journals, and human rights organizations and UN officials raised alarms about conditions at the facility. In a 2011 letter to then–Attorney General Eric Holder, Amnesty International expressed concern that “the combined effects of prolonged confinement to sparse cells with little natural light, no outdoor exercise and extreme social isolation amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez similarly condemned the pretrial solitary confinement at the MCC as “a punitive measure that is unworthy of the United States as a civilized democracy.”
But the federal government—and the Bureau of Prisons in particular—made it all but impossible to investigate. The Bureau of Prisons routinely denies entry to journalists and United Nations officials, stymying efforts to hold the agency accountable. In addition, most of the people detained in 10 South, though not Bout himself, were placed under conditions called Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). The measures subjected detainees, as well as their families and attorneys, to the threat of criminal prosecution for repeating anything the detainee said to the public or the press. Under the blanket of national security, one man subject to SAMs in 10 South was punished for saying “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (“peace to you”) to another detainee in the hall. Books were scant, said a former resident, because after one was read by a prisoner it would have to be burned. Details of life in 10 South were kept secret, sometimes for years, because gags had been placed on anyone who knew what was happening. One of the most difficult things, people who left 10 South later told us, was being effectively disappeared, despite being in Manhattan, close to some of the most powerful news organizations in the world.
And judges—with the notable exception of Scheindlin—largely continued to rubber-stamp conditions when they were challenged by detainees. Scheindlin’s ruling held the government accountable, but to our knowledge no similar rulings followed, and detainees continued to serve long stints in solitary at the MCC. Similarly, the mainstream media kept ignoring the conditions. News outlets seemed unable to believe that the US government could be running a high-rise dungeon in Manhattan’s Financial District, featuring conditions more commonly associated with the jails of foreign dictatorships.
It wasn’t until August 10, 2019, when Jeffrey Epstein was found dead by suicide in his cell, that things began to change. Suddenly, the media was obsessed with the facility, and how such a high-profile detainee could have died on the government’s watch. Two years later, in August 2021, the federal government closed the facility temporarily, “given ongoing concerns.”
After his conviction for conspiring to kill US nationals and provide support to a designated terrorist organization (the FARC in Columbia), among other charges, Bout was transferred to USP Marion, the federal facility made infamous for birthing the country’s first supermax. He spent the next decade in the prison’s converted Communication Management Unit, where prisoners’ contact with the outside world is limited and surveilled and physical contact is prohibited during family visits.
When it comes to criminal justice reporting, the media landscape has improved over the past decade. News outlets devote considerable resources to police violence, how racism shapes policing and prosecution, and the inhumanity of our prisons and jails. Yet, in contrast to grotesque locales outside the contiguous US—the black sites, the Russian gulags, the Guantánamos—the condition of federal jails and prisons is often ignored.
We are not suggesting that American prisons are worse than Russian ones, but in opting to exclude relevant details of Bout’s time behind bars, journalists told an incomplete story and maintained a dangerous sense of American exceptionalism. Had these same outlets investigated the conditions he faced, readers might have been left with a different sense of what constitutes American justice: prolonged solitary confinement even before conviction, sensory deprivation, severe limits on family contact, and media restrictions and silences. In other words, some of what we feared Griner was facing in Russian prisons.