Journalist calls for more transparency around prison extreme isolation practices

Investigative reporter Aviva Stahl on Wednesday called for more transparency around the U.S. federal prison system’s use of severe isolation.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons employs SAMs — or Special Administrative Measures — against high-risk inmates, such as terrorists and mass murders, in order to prevent further harm to society, according to the Justice Department. But Stahl argues that prisoners are often left in the dark over why they are subjected to SAMs and for how long. 

“There’s no transparency at all about how people are placed on SAMS,” Stahl told Hill.TV.

Prisoners placed under these restrictions have almost no contact to the outside world and their communications with a lawyer — which are generally protected by attorney-client privilege — can be subject to surveillance by the FBI.

“People are placed on SAMs with the sole discretion of the attorney general with no judicial oversight before the fact and once you get on SAMs, it’s a very, very difficult to get off them,” she continued.

Stahl said Mohammad Salameh, convicted perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was placed on SAMs for 11 years before he was eventually taken off in March 2016.

“Perhaps if we had more transparency about how SAMs operated or what the DOJ was using as a marker of dangerousness, it would be a different story,” she told Hill.TV.

Stahl explored the controversial practice in a recent piece published in The Nation, where she exposed alleged cases of brutality in one of the highest-security prisons in the country: Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, also referred to as Florence ADX. 

She said many of the prisoners in the unit designed for prisoners on SAMs went on hunger strike in order to protest their conditions. They were force-fed as a result, which Stahl said is contrary to medical ethics. According to the American Medical Association, force-feeding “violates core ethical values of the medical profession.” The World Medical Association also reached the same conclusion, saying the practice is ethically unacceptable.

In response to Stahl's request for comment over the alleged force-feeding, the bureau of federal prisons stated: “It is BOP’s responsibility to monitor the health and welfare of inmates and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life.”

Stahl said these prisoners weren't allowed to tell their story — until now.  

"Between 2005 and 2016, a majority of the prisoners there at least at some point went on a hunger strike and they were force fed hundreds if not thousands of times during their time there in protest of conditions of confinement," she told Hill.TV. "Since they couldn’t speak to the press or the public while this was happening, none of it has ever been reported until my story." 

—Tess Bonn