2018 Death Penalty report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise

With crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, 2018 was a deeply violent and barbaric year for Saudi Arabia, under his de facto leadership.
PhotoDeera Square is a public space located in front of the Religious Police building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in which public executions (usually by beheading) take place. It is sometimes known as Justice Square and colloquially called Chop Chop Square. After Friday prayers, police and other officials clear the area to make way for the execution to take place. After the beheading of the condemned, the head is stitched to the body which is wrapped up and taken away for the final rites.
This year execution rates of 149 executions, shows an increase from the previous year of three executions, indicating that death penalty trends are soaring and there is no reversal of this trend in sight.
The execution rates between 2015-2018 are amongst the highest recorded in the Kingdom since the 1990s and coincide with the ascension of king Salman to the t…

At the Federal Supermax, When Does Isolation Become Torture?

Supermax prison cell
You see them on TV, usually around the time they are arrested. Men who have declared war on America, combatants in a conflict that never ends. They are captured on the street and at airports, in mid-stride and sometimes in mid-attack.

Some of them have long, Arabic names. The journalists prefer nicknames. The Shoe Bomber. The Blind Sheikh. The American Taliban. You see them or you hear about them, just for a moment, and then they are gone, as if the earth swallowed them.

Where do they go, these men? What happens to them after judgment is passed and they are sent away?

There may or may not be a special place in hell for terrorists, but there is a special place in Colorado for them — a place for jihadists, conspirators, suppliers of material aid, failed suicide bombers, self-styled avengers, guerrilla leaders and more. Its name is H Unit.

H Unit is the most restricted area in the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, the highest-security pen in the federal prison system. Located a hundred miles southwest of Denver, just outside the high-desert town of Florence, the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” is known for housing gang leaders, drug lords and other high-risk prisoners in 22-hour-a-day lockdown. (Officially, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons doesn’t hold prisoners in solitary confinement; the agency prefers the term “restrictive housing.”)

A former warden once described ADX as “a clean version of hell.” In recent years, civil rights attorneys have argued that the prison was more like a filthy version of hell — a place where mentally ill men mutilated themselves, talked to ghosts and festered in feces-caked isolation cells for months, until a lawsuit forced the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to move its most acutely psychotic prisoners out of ADX.

But H Unit is another level of hell altogether. It’s a prison within a prison, yet that doesn’t quite convey the unique conditions of confinement there. It’s been called the only known black site on American soil, but it’s more like a black hole, a void where men are slowly buried alive in layers of isolation until they vanish entirely.

Every occupant of H Unit is subject to Special Administrative Measures, a designation made by the U.S. Attorney General for prisoners who are deemed to pose a serious, ongoing threat to public safety and national security. SAMs prisoners aren’t allowed to talk to the media or just about anybody else on the planet, because of concerns that they might send coded messages to criminal or terrorist organizations around the globe. The only contacts they are permitted on the outside consist of a few government-approved family members and their attorneys — all of whom are also sworn not to divulge anything the prisoner communicated to them, under threat of facing prosecution themselves.

Mail, phone calls, media consumption and family visits are all tightly restricted and monitored; the FBI and the BOP have translators who listen to every call and review every letter, whether it’s in English, Arabic or Swahili. Before some modifications implemented in recent years, many SAMs prisoners were not allowed to watch news broadcasts and received newspapers only after a thirty-day embargo; the government’s position, as articulated in court documents, was that media reports about current affairs or international conflicts “can serve to inflame a terrorist inmate’s radical tendencies and possibly incite him to engage in disruptive conduct within the institution.”

Out of 156,000 inmates in BOP custody, there are an estimated forty to fifty prisoners under the SAMs restrictions. Nearly all of them are in H Unit.

The first rule of SAMs is that nobody involved can talk about SAMs. The entire process is so shrouded in secrecy that it’s difficult to ascertain even the names of the SAMs inmates. But every once in a while, through a court document or a human-rights report, some information about the program slips out — like the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the Underwear Bomber.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” for America’s enemies, a vow he’s repeated since taking office. No one, apparently, has briefed him about what’s been going on in H Unit for years, or why the SAMs program strikes some human-rights advocates as akin to waterboarding — and possibly a hell of a lot worse.

“SAMs makes the isolating conditions of solitary all the more so,” says Laura Rovner, a University of Denver law professor who’s been involved in several court cases over solitary confinement at both the state and federal supermax prisons. “It really has a way of disappearing people.”

Rovner and a few other attorneys have challenged the constitutionality of SAMs on behalf of several H Unit prisoners. The cases have drawn barely a blip of media attention — possibly because the plaintiffs are among the most despised in the entire federal prison system — and have failed to bring about any dramatic changes in the way the restrictions are imposed. Yet the litigation has raised provocative questions about the rationale for the security measures (and for keeping them in effect, in some cases, for decades); about the obstacles facing SAMs prisoners as they try to communicate with their attorneys; and about the debilitating effects of extreme isolation.

“Abuse of prisoners thrives in secrecy,” states the complaint filed in federal court on behalf of Abdulmutallab. “Mr. Abdulmutallab experiences life in the H Unit at ADX as a struggle to avoid becoming mentally ill.”

The cases provide firsthand accounts, from otherwise voiceless prisoners, of what it’s like to live under SAMs. They are stories of a journey to oblivion — a slow, relentless whittling away of family ties, memories, hopes and even a sense of self, and a descent into confusion and stupor.

“The prisoners around me in H Unit — each one lives in his own bubble or reality,” states a declaration filed by Nidal Ayyad, another SAMs inmate. “Some of them have been under SAMs for ten years. Five years ago, if someone told me some of the things I hear in H Unit, I would have thought they were crazy and wouldn’t have listened to them. Now I’m listening.

“Some prisoners tell me to shut off my cell light and never use it because it emits harmful radiation and the TV screen emits the same. These prisoners live in dark cells day and night. Now I wonder if what they say is true. Some say that hot water is poisonous and harmful. Some believe the SAMs will be on us until we die.”

In 1982, Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian was asked to evaluate prisoners who’d spent time in solitary confinement at Massachusetts’s infamous Walpole State Prison. Grassian, who didn’t have much experience with prisoners, was skeptical of their claims of psychological damage. He went into the interviews believing that his subjects were probably trying to con him.

He soon changed his mind. The men displayed unmistakable signs of paranoia, delirium and extreme agitation, including acute sensitivity to noise and light. They were prone to revenge fantasies and random violence, much of it self-directed. At the same time, they minimized their symptoms, even rationalizing away suicide attempts, not wanting to admit that the isolation was “getting” to them. To his astonishment, Grassian soon learned that there was a substantial body of research stretching back over decades about the harmful effects of solitary confinement, including studies of astronauts and the use of solitary to break political prisoners. He soon published his own paper about what he called “SHU [Special Housing Unit] Syndrome.”

“I was not the discoverer,” Grassian noted recently. “The syndrome has been known for 150 years. It’s unassailable that solitary confinement causes psychiatric harm.”

Grassian’s remarks came in the course of a recent symposium titled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement,” organized by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, that presented an array of criminal justice professionals, academics, journalists, and former prisoners turned activists. After decades in which most state corrections systems basically ignored the findings of Grassian and other medical experts, choosing instead to greatly expand their use of isolation units and supermax prisons, the practice is now under intense scrutiny. Critics on the left and the right have assailed the overuse of solitary as inhumane, counterproductive, a waste of resources — and a public safety risk, since most prisoners will eventually be released, often with little preparation for their return to society.

The Colorado Department of Corrections has been in the vanguard of the reform movement, moving hundreds of mentally ill prisoners out of “administrative segregation” and into “residential treatment units” — a program that was greatly expanded in response to the 2013 murder of its executive director, Tom Clements, by a parole absconder who’d spent years in solitary and was released directly to the streets. The effort to remove the mentally ill from solitary has even reached ADX.

But all the talk of reform hasn’t changed anything in H Unit.

Source: Westword, Alan Prendergast, July 3, 2018. Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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