Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System

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Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System

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As discussed in this report, Amnesty International believes that the conditions at ADX are unacceptably harsh and that in-cell programmes cannot compensate for the lack of meaningful social interaction which many prisoners endure for years on end. The poverty of the exercise facilities at ADX is also disturbing, particularly given the long periods in which prisoners are otherwise confined to cells. Failure to provide suitable, daily outdoor exercise falls short of the United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules (SMR) for the Treatment of Prisoners. Amnesty International recognizes that the authorities have an obligation to ensure the safety of staff and inmates and that it may be necessary at times to segregate prisoners. However all measures must be consistent with the USA's obligation to treat all prisoners humanely, without exception.

In recognition of the psychological harm that can result from isolating people even for relatively brief periods, international human rights experts and organizations have called on governments to restrict their use of solitary confinement so that it is applied only in exceptional circumstances, for the shortest possible period of time. US professional bodies such as the American Bar Association have made similar recommendations. However, prisoners at ADX must spend a minimum of 12 months in isolation, and often far longer, before becoming eligible for the SDP. There is no detailed public information on the time prisoners spend in each unit at ADX. However, a Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) analysis based on a limited survey of 30 inmates in 2011 for a case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) showed prisoners were likely to spend at least three years in the GP (confined to solitary cells 22-24 hours a day) before being admitted to the SDP. Other sources based on a wider sample of prisoners have found that scores of prisoners have spent more than twice as long in solitary confinement. Prisoners in the Control Unit, the most isolated section of the facility, are ineligible for the SDP as they are serving fixed terms in the unit for disciplinary infractions, terms which can extend to six or more years.

While all prisoners now receive a hearing prior to placement at ADX, advocates have criticised the internal review procedures – including those for deciding when a prisoner can access and progress through the SDP – as over-discretionary and lacking clear criteria. According to lawsuits and other sources, this means that some prisoners effectively remain in isolation indefinitely, without being able to change their circumstances. Amnesty International believes that the conditions of isolation at ADX breach international standards for humane treatment and, especially when applied for a prolonged period or indefinitely, amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law.

Amnesty International is further concerned that prisoners with serious mental illness are detained at ADX and, according to an ongoing lawsuit, have not been adequately screened, treated or monitored. While not in a position to assess the quality of mental health provision currently at ADX, the organization is concerned by the cases cited in the litigation and believes that no prisoner with mental disabilities should be held in solitary confinement. Such practice is against international standards and the recommendations of mental health experts and organizations. US courts have also consistently found that isolating people who are seriously mentally ill in "super-maximum security" facilities is incompatible with the US constitutional prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment."

In putting together this report at a time when the BOP is conducting a "comprehensive review" into its restricted housing operations, Amnesty International is seeking to ensure that the audit be guided by the organizations' concerns, including pre-trial isolation, and that its recommendations for best practise reflect those contained within this report.