US prison recalled as 'a clean version of hell'

Wed, Apr 11, 2012, 01:00

The ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’ could soon be home to five British terrorist suspects, writes MARK HENNESSY

ONE OF the former wardens at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, remembers the “super-max” prison, designed to hold the US’s most dangerous prisoners, as “a clean version of hell”.

A lawyer, Mark H Donatelli, according to yesterday’s European Court of Human Rights judgment, had found 43 prisoners at “the ADX” had been held in “lock-down conditions” for eight years and more.

Contact with staff could be as little as one minute a day. Some prisoners were placed on “single recreation status”, meaning no one else was permitted to be in adjoining recreation cells at the same time.

“Recreation privileges could be terminated for minor infractions: one prisoner was denied outdoor exercise for 60 days for trying to feed crumbs to birds,” Donatelli told the judges in an affidavit.

When the prisoner challenged his penalty, it was increased to 90 days. Later he was told the tougher sanction was “not punitive but a managerial strategy to impress upon him the importance of adhering to institutional procedures”.

Today the five – Abu Hamza, Babar Ahmad, Seyla Talah Ahsan, Adel Abdul Bary and Khaled Al-Fawwaz – know that barring miracles that the prison – built after earlier high-security prisons failed to be secure enough – could be their home for the rest of their lives.

Identifiable by his hooded left eye and prosthetic arm, Abu Hamza had, like the others, tried hard to avoid being sent there, relying, according to yesterday’s judgment, “on his poor health, specifically his type 2 diabetes, his high blood pressure, the loss of sight in his right eye and poor vision in his left, the amputation of both his forearms (which frequently led to infections through abrasions), psoriasis on much of his body, hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating)”.

Given his medical condition, Hamza is unlikely to be held there long, the judges found, while the “restrictive conditions and lack of human contact” would be justified if the men are convicted as charged since they would pose “a significant security risk”.

Every maximum-security prisoner has the ability to earn better conditions. At first, they will be entitled to no more than three showers a week and 10 hours a week outside of their

7sq m cell. Later, they will be entitled to five escorted showers each week; three, rather than two, telephone calls to family, along with a greater list of goods to choose from the prison’s paid-for commissary list.

In the third phase, trusted prisoners can earn group recreation for 90 minutes a day, five days a week, along with sharing a meal with other prisoners once a week.

Progress is determined by the programme steering committee, with advancement subject to “positive behaviour and respectful conduct and positive overall institutional adjustment”.

The Strasbourg ruling will ease but not remove pressure on prime minister David Cameron to rewrite the UK’s membership terms of the European Court of Human Rights, a body now detested by most Conservative MPs.

Defending the court, the Liberal Democrats’ Lord Lester said it showed that the European Convention on Human Rights is not “a charter for evil people”, though it was “regrettable” that the decision had taken so long.

Conservative MPs were not convinced, with Chris Heaton-Harris grudgingly acknowledging “common sense has prevailed in this particular case”, but insisting that “plenty of examples” exist to justify changes.