Lower Manhattan is more than 1,800 miles from the small Southern Colorado town of Florence, and seemingly worlds apart, but the two places have at least one thing in common: both have federal prisons that utilize solitary confinement in suspected terrorist cases.
Sally Eberhardt, who lives in New York City, has been working since 2009 to raise public awareness about solitary confinement. This happens at the ADX prison complex in Fremont County and the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, among other federal prisons throughout the U.S.
Prisoners in solitary confinement are isolated in a very small concrete, windowless cell for much of the day, if not all day. Colorado cells are usually 7 feet by 13 feet. The practice has received a fair amount of criticism. Human rights groups have claimed that solitary confinement worsens the mental state, and in no way helps rehabilitate prisoners.
In June, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed state legislation, with bipartisan support, that bans prisons from placing inmates with serious mental illness in solitary confinement for long periods of time. The bill, however, doesn’t define how long an inmate should remain in solitary confinement.
Former head of the Colorado Department of Corrections had cut solitary confinement use in state prisons by half when he was murdered last March by an inmate who was released directly from solitary confinement. Current Chief Rick Raemisch is continuing his work.
But federal prisons have yet to endure the same amount of reform. The federal Bureau of Prisons hired a consultant to look at the practice earlier this year. That report has yet to be completed.
The case that led Eberhardt to this particular genre of activism, and eventually the formation of a nonprofit, has roots in both the big city and the small town 30 minutes west of Pueblo.
In 2006, Syed Fahad Hashmi, an American citizen, was arrested for providing support to al-Qaida and conspiring to contribute to the terrorist organization.
Hashmi had let his friend, Junaid Babar, also an American citizen, use his cellphone and bunk at his London flat. That friend’s luggage, which contained rain coats, ponchos and socks, was later given to a top-ranking al-Qaida leader in Pakistan.
A political science professor of Hashmi’s at Brooklyn College, Jeanne Theoharis, wrote about the case for The Nation Magazine in 2009.
“Two days after being sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States, Barack Obama signed three executive orders, banning torture, requiring the CIA to use the same methods as the military in interrogating terror suspects, shutting down the network of secret CIA prisons and shuttering the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year,” Theoharis wrote.
The day after those executive orders were signed, she said, she was sitting in a courtroom for Hashmi’s hearing.
Today, Guantanamo Bay is still in operation and a 525-page summary released by the Senate Intelligence Committee last month shows the CIA interrogation methods were much more gruesome than they led the White House and Department of Defense to believe.
The report mentions solitary confinement at the Cobalt facility in the report. The facility was often referred to as the dungeon because inmates were shackled in isolated cells that were dark and only contained a bucket for human waste.Early on in the program, conditions were far worse.
“Even after the conditions of confinement improved with the construction of new detention facilities, detainees were held in total isolation except when being interrogated or debriefed by CIA personnel,” the report said.
The behavior that followed time in solitary confinement is also covered:
“Throughout the program, multiple CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and extended isolation exhibited psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation,” the report said. “Multiple psychologists identified the lack of human contact experienced by detainees as a cause of psychiatric problems.”
While conditions in prisons on American soil are better, many still worry that solitary confinement happening in them causes psychological problems.
A study published in the American Journal of Public health found that inmates in solitary confinement for long periods of time were significantly more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm than inmates who have regular human interaction.
Hashmi had been in solitary confinement for three years when he finally reached a trial.
“I’m against solitary confinement, but I can’t believe they’re doing it in Lower Manhattan,” she said she remembered thinking after reading the article by Theoharis on Hashmi’s case. “I was appalled.”
The case struck a chord with Eberhardt.
“Solitary is bad enough. But pretrial solitary kind of puts a fair trial out of the window,” Eberhardt said, speaking about the psychological changes a person undergoes. “A lot of people who end up in ADX start in a pretrial solitary confinement.”
And Hashmi did. Hashimi stayed in a 23-hour per day solitary confinement cell and had very limited access to his family. He was facing a 70-year sentence, but took a plea for 15 years in supermax at ADX.
Before his sentencing, Eberhardt became involved in suspected terrorist’s rights. She brought the story to an anti-war group she had been working with, Theaters Against War, a group of theater artists who are dedicated to a pro-peace culture. They took the idea of a vigil to Theoharis. It was a way to make the public aware of Hashmi’s case.
While solitary confinement hasn’t officially been deemed torture in the U.S., groups such as the Center for Constitutional Rights believe it should be.
In June and February, the group testified at hearings before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. They asked Congress to increase federal oversight and support regulations that would limit the use of solitary confinement.
Pretrial solitary confinement was the sort of thing Eberhardt thought happened in third-world countries, not America and certainly not New York City. But standing up for a suspected terrorists or suspected aid to terrorists, especially after 9/11, doesn’t have much appeal.
“I think people are kind of in doubt in an issue like this,” Eberhardt said.
Even so, she and the Theaters Against war group organized the first vigil in October 2009, and the number of people who attended surprised Eberhardt.
“We had a brutal winter that winter. It was the coldest night of the year and we were filled, 125, 150 people came.” Eberhardt said. “I’d say we’ve been going between 60 and 80 people (at each vigil).”
This sort of thing does not happen in Florence.
Colorado’s southern Colorado chapter of Citizens for Rehabilitation of Errants, which advocates human rights in prisons around the country, usually gets around 10 to 20 people at their monthly meetings in Colorado Springs. Most of them are from the Colorado Springs area, a few from Pueblo, said Michael Dell, who hosts the southern Colorado meetings.
“We tried to hold a group in the Canon City area and it didn’t seem to take off, and I don’t know why,” he said. Most of the people who attend have a family member in prison and are looking for resources or advice. It’s hardly ever citizens who are concerned with practices within the prison system, even though CURE has done a lot of work trying to change related legislation.
There are 12 prisons located in Fremont County, and nine of them are state facilities. These prisons are the town’s economy as more than half of the jobs there exist because of the corrections industry.
It would be unthinkable for employees to stand out against the policies, another state CURE member said.
Hashmi remains in solitary confinement at ADX. He started his 15-year sentence there in 2010. It’s not likely that the candle light vigils held for people like him will make their way to the small town of Florence. The conversation isn’t there, and if it is, it’s not happening in the streets like it is in New York City.