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Amnesty International Challenges America's Most Restrictive Prison

Image: Federal prison in Florence, Colo.

The supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo. BOB DAEMMRICH / AFP - Getty Images file

A federal prison that houses some of the most notorious criminals in American history, from the Unabomber to the would-be shoe bomber, is violating international law by consigning inmates to prolonged solitary confinement, a human rights group says.

Amnesty International said in a report Wednesday that the prison — the Administrative Maximum facility at Florence, Colorado, also known as ADX and sometimes called Alcatraz of the Rockies — subjects inmates to cruel, degrading and “inhuman” conditions.

Most ADX inmates are allowed almost no social interaction, for 22 to 24 hours a day and years on end. The report says that the “vast majority” are confined in cramped cells with solid walls, solid doors and a small slit window with a view of the sky or other buildings.

Even exercise time is limited to individual yards or cages “with no view of the natural world,” said the report, which drew on accounts from inmates and legal papers.

“This is an issue that has been ignored for a long time,” said Tessa Murphy, part of Amnesty International’s U.S. research team.

The ADX inmates include some who have a history of mental illness, and others with no history of mental illness who have been driven by confinement to depression, paranoia and psychosis, the organization said.

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The United States is virtually alone in the world in how extensively it uses the practice, the organization said. An estimated 80,000 inmates are in solitary in federal and state prisons on a given day, it said, and that figure is nine years old.

The Bureau of Prisons declined comment on the Amnesty International report, citing ongoing litigation.

Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. human rights council, said in 2011 that inmates are assigned to ADX only when they pose a serious risk to other inmates, staff or the public, or to themselves.

The government also pledged last year to conduct its first review of solitary confinement in the federal system, including at ADX. A Bureau of Prisons spokesman, Chris Burke, said that review was expected to be finished by year’s end.

At the same time, the government has announced plans to build a second federal supermax prison in Illinois.

Juan Mendez, a U.N. expert on torture and other cruel punishment, concluded the same year that solitary confinement should be banned around the world in almost all cases, used only for exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible.

One ADX prisoner mentioned in the Amnesty International report, identified only as J.P., cut his scrotum with a piece of plastic, bit off his own finger and sliced off his earlobes before an emergency medical transfer to another facility in 2013.

Another, Jose Martin Vega, hanged himself in his cell in 2010.

The report also mentions a convicted armed robber, Thomas Silverstein, who has spent 30 years in confinement, nine of them at ADX, after he killed another inmate at a prison in Illinois. His contact with other people is limited to one minute per day.

Silverstein has argued in court that his prolonged stay in solitary violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. A federal appeals court in May upheld the nature of his confinement.

In all, ADX houses more than 400 inmates. They include gang members, foreign terrorists and other criminals deemed too dangerous for less restrictive custody.

Among them are Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympic bomber; Richard Reid, the 2001 would-be shoe bomber; and Ramzi Yousef, convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Image: Theodore Kaczynski
Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, in 1996. ELAINE THOMPSON / AP file

States have made incremental moves away from solitary confinement, at least in some cases.

In May, the Justice Department settled a lawsuit against the state of Ohio, which agreed to end solitary confinement for juveniles. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time that the practice is “particularly detrimental” to young people with disabilities.

Three months earlier, the state of New York, under pressure from a lawsuit, agreed to end solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for minors and pregnant women.

“The change is sort of glacial,” said Jean Casella, the co-editor of Solitary Watch, which tracks solitary confinement in the United States. “Maybe not glacial, but it’s slow and very limited and spotty.”

Among other recommendations, Amnesty International wants the federal and state governments to use solitary confinement only as a last resort, and provide much more complete data on who gets the punishment and for how long.

Amnesty said that it had been denied requests to visit the Colorado facility in 2011 and 2012. Casella said that supermax prisons across the country have grown more restrictive in recent years, denying visits by reporters and human rights activists.

“Basically they’re black sites on American soil,” she said.