Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System

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Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System

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The USA stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in longterm or indefinite solitary confinement, defined by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as "the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day". More than 40 US states are believed to operate "super-maximum security" units or prisons, collectively housing at least 25,000 prisoners. This number does not include the many thousands of other prisoners serving shorter periods in punishment or administrative segregation cells – estimated to be approximately 80,000 on any given day.

While US authorities have always been able to segregate prisoners for their own protection or as a penalty for disciplinary offences, super-maximum security facilities differ in that they are designed to isolate prisoners long-term as an administrative control measure. It is a management tool that has been criticized by human rights bodies, and is being increasingly challenged by US penal experts and others, as costly, ineffective and inhumane.

The federal government currently operates one super-maximum security prison, the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Colorado. With capacity for 490 male inmates, the vast majority of ADX prisoners are confined to solitary cells for 22-24 hours a day in conditions of severe physical and social isolation. The cells have solid walls preventing prisoners from seeing or having direct contact with those in adjacent cells. Most cells have an interior barred door as well as a solid outer door, compounding the sense of isolation. Prisoners eat all meals inside their cells, and in most units each cell contains a shower and a toilet, minimising the need for the inmate to leave his cell. Visits by prison staff, including routine checks by medical and mental health staff, take place at the cell door and medical and psychiatric consultations are sometimes conducted remotely, through teleconferencing. All outside visits are non-contact, with prisoners separated from their visitors by a glass screen. Prisoners in the General Population (GP) (the majority of prisoners at ADX) are allowed out-of-cell exercise for up to ten hours a week, in a bare interior room or in small individual yards or cages, with no view of the natural world. Prisoners in some other units receive even less out of cell time.

Most prisoners assigned to ADX have reportedly been convicted of serious offences in prison, such as assault, murder or attempted escape. ADX also houses a number of prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences; most of these prisoners were sent to the facility based on their committal offence rather than for their conduct during incarceration and some have Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) placed on them by the Department of Justice which restrict their communications with the outside world. In a letter responding to concerns raised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the US government said that ADX is "designed to meet the exceptional security requirements of its inmates", noting that prisoners are sent there only after it is determined that they would pose a serious risk to themselves or the safety of other inmates, staff, or the public if placed in a less secure setting. The letter asserts that the regime, while restrictive, is humane, pointing out that the cells have windows which allow access to natural light; that most inmates have TVs with multiple channels and access to in-cell educational and other programs; and that they have daily contact with staff. It also states that GP inmates have an opportunity to participate in a Step Down Program (SDP) where they can earn their way to a less restrictive setting and ultimately to another facility.