Solitary confinement at 'Alcatraz of the Rockies'

What struck me most about arriving at ADX Florence, the U.S.’s only federal “supermax” prison, was the sterile silence. You would think that a prison known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” with the capacity for 490 inmates would be awash with noise, but with prisoners entombed in solitary confinement behind inches of concrete and metal, visitors to the prison could be forgiven for forgetting there were people in there at all.

I was visiting ADX Florence in 2001 as part of a fact-finding mission. The conditions of long-term solitary confinement were disturbing then, and they are much worse now. Amnesty International’s report Entombed: Isolation in the US Federal Prison System, describes how the use of isolation at ADX breaches international standards for humane treatment and amounts to torture. It is not hard to see why.

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When prisoners first arrive at ADX they are put into solitary confinement- held for at least 22 hours a day in cells that measure little more than 12’ by 7’. Most cells have solid concrete walls and even a barred air-lock style chamber at the front, just to make sure prisoners cannot communicate with each other. Meals are taken inside the cells, and medical and psychiatric consultations are often conducted remotely, by teleconferencing, reducing any chance of direct human interaction.

Each cell has a narrow window looking onto a small concrete yard with no view of the natural world other than a patch of sky or a brick wall.

Most inmates are moved out of their cells for just ten hours a week to exercise, to either a solitary indoor room or an outdoor individual cage. Other than that, all they see is the same bleak cell interior, day in, day out.

The rules of ADX say prisoners must stay in this state of suspended animation for 12 months before they can apply to have the restrictions reduced. In reality, many stay much longer: the average length spent in solitary in ADX is 8.2 years.

The impact of such extreme isolation is devastating. Devoid of human interaction, never mind human touch, many prisoners are pushed to their mental limits.

Often they snap. We’ve charted terrible cases of extreme self-harm enacted by inmates in solitary. The symptoms resulting from extended periods in solitary confinement include anxiety, depression, insomnia, hypertension, extreme paranoia, perceptual distortions and psychosis. Prisoners rarely get the medical attention they need. The solid metal cell-doors are oftensimply shut on their suffering.

Amnesty International has been campaigning against the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons for a long time, and we’re not the only ones. There is a widespread recognition that this is an issue that the government needs to address.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan Mendez, has spoken out about the U.S.’s use of solitary confinement and has urged the government to eliminate the use of prolonged and indefinite isolation.  

In the U.S., Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was a driving force behind a 2012 Senate hearing following which the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) agreed to review its segregation practices. This falls short of the ongoing transparency we’re calling for, but at least it’s a start.

However, despite these moves there are worrying signs that the authorities are planning to expand the extreme isolation seen in ADX to at least one other facility.

The BOP are planning to open the Thomson Correctional Center, another federal “supermax” prison in Illinois, which is Durbin’s own state. We do not know the exact plans for the prison, but Amnesty International is concerned that the facility will replicate the regime at ADX.

Many of the prisoners in ADX have been convicted of very serious and violent crimes, but the answer is not just to lock them up deprived of human contact or meaningful rehabilitation programs. International law is clear: all prisoners must be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

During my visit to ADX, I was allowed into one of the cells. I only spent a few minutes in there but, imagining the solid metal door shutting behind me, I could already feel the creeping claustrophobia taking hold. As I drove away from the prison, through the stunning landscape of the Colorado Rockies, I couldn’t help but think of the people shut away in there, living their lives in a shrunken, silent world of concrete and steel.

We cannot let that silence continue. The systematic abuse of prisoners’ human rights cannot be called ‘justice.’

Wright is a researcher at Amnesty International.