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The US government's callous and dehumanizing practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement in the country's only federal super-maximum security prison amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is in violation of international law, said Amnesty International today.
The new report Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System, launched today, reveals the severity of conditions that prisoners face in the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum facility near Florence, Colorado (known as ADX Florence).
"You cannot overestimate the devastating impact long periods of solitary confinement can have on the mental and physical well-being of a prisoner. Such harsh treatment is happening as a daily practice in the US, and it is in breach of international law," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International's Americas Director.
The report explores the physical and psychological impact of confining inmates to solitary cells for 22-24 hours a day. The severe conditions in ADX have led to some prisoners practising extreme self-harm or committing suicide.
Symptoms resulting from being held in isolation for extended periods include anxiety, depression, insomnia, hypertension, extreme paranoia, perceptual distortions and psychosis.
The ADX Florence federal facility has a capacity for 490 male inmates. Prisoners spend a minimum of 12 months in solitary confinement before they may become eligible for a reduction in the restrictions of their detention. In reality, many spend much longer in isolation. One study produced by lawyers found the average length of time an inmate would spend in isolation was 8.2 years.
Most inmates are held in cells with solid walls and a barred, air-lock style chamber in front of a solid metal door, to ensure they have no contact with other prisoners. One small slit of a window allows them a view of the sky or a brick wall.
Furniture in the cells is made of poured concrete and consists of a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet. Meals and showers are taken inside the cells and medical consultations, including mental health checks, are often conducted remotely through teleconferencing.
Amnesty International's report details several examples of a prisoner's mental health deteriorating dramatically whilst in solitary confinement.
In September 2013 a prisoner with a history of mental illness hanged himself in his cell after reportedly spending more than a decade at ADX with only intermittent mental health care. He suffered psychotic symptoms which had allegedly been ignored in the days before his death.
There are now worrying signs that the US government plans to expand its use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. Plans for Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, a new supermax prison, include provisions for solitary confinement, replicating the system at ADX.
"This is the ultimate form of warehousing prisoners and the idea that the US government is planning to expand the practice in the face of international concern is truly worrying. The use of such forms of solitary confinement goes beyond legitimate correctional measures and strays into cruel and inhuman treatment," said Erika Guevara.
"The US government must ensure that solitary confinement is only ever used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort and should never be used for prolonged or indefinite periods of time. No prisoner who has a mental illness or who is at risk of mental illness should ever be held in solitary confinement."
Amnesty International visited the ADX facility in 2001 but since then all visit requests have been denied. Information in the report has been gathered through a range of sources including court documents available through lawsuits and other information provided by attorneys representing ADX inmates, as well as policy directives issued by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The practice of prolonged solitary confinement is not limited to ADX; Amnesty International’s report notes that other federal facilities also confine prisoners in prolonged isolation in Special Management Units.
In some cases prisoners are held in isolation even before they have stood trial. The Metropolitan Correction Centre (MCC) in New York, also known as 'Little Gitmo', is used to house pre-trial detainees in solitary confinement for months or even years before they face trial. Detainees have little access to natural light and no provision for outdoor exercise.
In 2011 Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.
Most prisoners in ADX have been convicted of serious offences in prison such as assault, murder or attempted escape; others have been convicted of terrorism offences.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million members in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.