No one who has spent any time studying and writing about Guantánamo, as I have, could fail to realize that, although the terrible innovation of Guantánamo is indefinite detention without charge or trial, its orange jumpsuits, and the perceived normality of solitary confinement as standard operating procedure, arrived at the prison directly from America’s domestic prison system — where there are 2.2 million prisoners (and almost 7 million people under correctional supervision (including probation and parole), and up to 100,000 prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement at any one time. Most harrowingly, many thousands of these prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement not as occasional punishment, but as a policy, and have spent years, or even decades without any human contact.
As Kevin Gosztola explained in July 2011, in an article for FireDogLake, “40 states and the federal government have supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.”
Over the years, I have endeavored to cover the horrors of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. In December 2010, I joined a call for a worldwide ban on the use of solitary confinement, and in 2011 I covered the hunger strikes that began in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility — see here, here, here and here. I also cross-posted a hugely important article about long-term solitary confinement, “Hellhole,” written by Atul Gawande for the New Yorker in 2009, and in 2012 reported on calls by Professor Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, for an end to the use of solitary confinement, and an appeal to the UN by Pelican Bay prisoners.
Most recently, solitary confinement and conditions in America’s Supermax prisons have been raised as topics of concern by the families of British citizens facing extradition to the US. While some of these men — both Caucasian — had their extraditions blocked by the racist home secretary Theresa May, two British citizens who did not are Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, both Muslims, who were extradited last October along with three other Muslim men to face extensive pre-trial detention in solitary confinement in Supermax prisons.
The case of Talha Ahsan, a witty and clever poet with Asberger’s Syndrome, has been promoted in a tireless manner by his brother Hamja, who can be seen here in the film “Extradition,” about the cases of Talha and Babar.
This Thursday, April 16, Hamja has organized an event about solitary confinement, entitled, “Extradited to a Future of Torture: The Reality of Solitary Confinement in America,” which is taking place in Room S-2.08, in the King’s Building at King’s College London on the Strand, London WC2R 2LS.
This event is hosted by International State Crimes Initiative (ISCI) and Dickson Poon School of Law, and features the UK premiere of “The Worst of the Worst,” a new documentary film by Valerie Kaur of Yale Visual Law. The film focuses on Northern Correctional Institution, the Supermax prison in Connecticut where Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan were extradited in 2012. A trailer is here.
Before the screening, Tessa Murphy of Amnesty International, the lead author of “The Edge of Endurance,” Amnesty’s special report on isolation in US Supermax prisons in California — in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) — will introduce the issue of solitary confinement as a human rights concern.
Also speaking are special guests from America, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, whose website Solitary Watch is required reading for anyone concerned about solitary confinement. They will give a presentation about Supermax prisons and solitary confinement in America.
After the screening, Hamja Ahsan will read from Talha’s new Supermax prison writings and answer questions about his brother’s conditions of confinement. See the Free Talha website for further information.
I will be attending the event, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting James and Jean, whose article announcing their UK visit is here. I hope also to see some of you there if you can make it.
Below, for further information about Talha’s case, is a recent BBC Asian Network interview, and also please read this comprehensive article in the New Statesman about Talha’s case by Ian Patel of the International State Crimes Initiative at King’s College London.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
I must say that being in solitary confinement would be marginally better then being with someone who murders me, rapes me, or beats me up.
That would be one of the cases where isolation might be called for, Thomas, but it should still be used sparingly, and not as a sweeping administrative procedure to make life easier for the authorities. Nor do I believe that there is ever justification for using it on a long-term basis – for years, or even decades. Laws and treaties and intel reports have tended to state that it should never be used for more than a month.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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