• Sheet of paper Report

Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System

July 16, 2014


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.

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.

This report will detail how conditions in ADX breach international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners. By doing so, it seeks to oppose any replication of the ADX regime as currently proposed by the BOP in the newly acquired Thomson facility. The prison, due to open within the next years has been designated as a maximum high security prison with ADX and SMU cells.

This report will also show how in the period of time since ADX was built, conditions have become increasingly restrictive with prisoners held in more severe conditions of isolation for longer periods. As conditions have become more restrictive, so has access to the facility for human rights groups, experts and the press. In detailing how the original purpose of the prison- to provide a route out of isolation within a defined period – has eroded over the years, the organization seeks to underscore the increased need for external scrutiny including access to the facility for the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.