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An American Supermax cell - our human future?

"He will be confined in a cell 7 feet by 12 feet, with a moulded concrete bunk; his food will be delivered through a slot in the door; external communication, even with a doctor, will come via a closed-circuit television in his cell. For one hour in each day, he will be able to visit a small dark pit where he can exercise alone. His fellow prisoners (although he will not see them) will be 'the most severely psychotic people' … and he will be likely, since the primary cause is isolation, to become one such himself. His solitary confinement can and perhaps will continue for life."

This is a description of what will happen to individuals facing extradition to the USA if they are extradited, by lawyer Gareth Pierce in an article she wrote last week for the London Review of Books (which you can read here).

I'm sure that I am not alone here in finding it hard to put such unconscionable treatment of a human being into any framework of discussion or debate. My reaction is just to feel sick and boiling with anger that any human being can be put into such a situation, let alone one that has been carefully designed and provided for by governments, lawyers and a whole host of other people along the way (such as the architects who built the Supermax prisons in Colorado for such solitary confinement, Pierce writes: 'The cells are carefully designed by architects to limit access to natural light, to eliminate stimulation or distraction…').

It would also be wrong for me to describe my reaction to reading of the conditions that the extraditees will face as 'shocked'. We know, as citizens and certainly as Amnesty members, only too well, of the kinds of treatment meted out to defendants in the USA post 9/11. As a lawyer, I have also worked on the cases of those in indefinite detention and those facing inhuman punishments.

Pierce has written this article because the European Court of Human Rights will be deciding whether the detainees, who are currently in prison in the UK, can lawfully be extradited to the USA, given the conditions they would face and in spite of various assurances by the US government. The complexities of this legal situation likely would be termed 'interesting' amongst lawyers, the upcoming court case perhaps even offering some hope of a way out of this hell for the men concerned, though Pierce is cautiously not over-optimistic: "Strasbourg, the European court of last resort, has been criticised in the past for a lack of imagination, or at least of judicial understanding, or the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners, and of having 'too ready an acceptance of state interests'…" However, it is difficult to describe such a sickening state of affairs where a man faces the destiny of such grim punishments as 'interesting'; to have a purely rational or intellectual response to a fate that is so horrifying and bodes so ill not only for the man but for the societies which colluded in sending him to this fate.

In the middle of the article, Pierce asks: 'Where in all of the sorry history of this one case does the presumption of innocence rest …? Where is there any regard for the … right to a fair and speedy trial? Where is there any respect for the concept of trial by a jury free from prior knowledge or opinion?'

After a UK election which seemed, to me, to be so characterized by a lack of real political passion in any of the three main figures, these questions are the ones that we coulld wish to be passionately at the centre of our politics:  whether or not a man can face such a fate as the punishment described in Pierce's article, or whether or not our society will prevent this from happening to him, whether or not people are presumed guilty and tried unfairly…

These are not just 'interesting' legal questions, they are not even just 'civil liberties' issues, they are crucial human matters, which concern each and every one of us.


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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