What Happens In The H Unit At Federal Supermax Prison?

Imagine a man trapped in a room that’s two
paces across and four paces long. His bed is a concrete slab with a small rubber
mattress and a thin blanket. His desk has only a concrete stool, and no
matter where in his tiny room he lingers, his toilet is never further than a few feet
away. He hasn’t seen the sun in weeks, and when
he is allowed outside he is quickly shuttled to a caged-in area that is just four paces
across and eight paces long. Inside is a deflated soccer ball and nothing
more. This man is only allowed to write to or receive
mail from a very restricted list of individuals, and any outgoing letters undergo intense scrutiny
and censorship, taking up to three months to be delivered. A reply letter undergoes the same process,
and if not rejected outright, will take another three months before the man can read it. You’re just imagining this cruelty, but
for many it is a daily reality they have lived in for years. Welcome to H Unit at Colorado’s Federal Supermax
Prison: otherwise known as hell on earth. Isolation, solitary, or special housing units,
have been a punitive measure employed by prisons for centuries. While in the past a prisoner may have been
thrown into solitary on a whim, today in our modern prison system it is supposed to be
used only as a punishment for prison offenders, or for the safety of individuals who may be
at risk within the general population. Though solitary is meant to punish bad behavior,
and ostensibly, to correct it, psychological studies dating back over the last one hundred
and fifty years have consistently shown that solitary confinement is extremely psychologically
harmful. Individuals kept in solitary for long amounts
of time can develop a form of PTSD, and can become extremely averse to loud noises or
bright lights. They exhibit extreme antisocial behaviors,
which can be counter-intuitive when the goal of the incarceration is to correct bad behavior. Instead of teaching an inmate a lesson, solitary
confinement can in fact make an inmate even more dangerous and aggressive. In one famous case, an inmate released straight
from isolation into parole at the end of his sentence murdered Colorado Department of Corrections
Executive Director, Tom Clements. The inmate had spent years in solitary confinement,
getting only an hour of exercise a day- if staff allowed it, which they often did not-
in an outdoors cage where he remained, you guessed it: alone. Then one day he was a free man, and promptly
took revenge for his treatment. Solitary had turned a dangerous man even more
dangerous, and had clearly failed its intended purpose. Crime must be punished, that is a basic tenet
of any nation which operates under the rule of law. But where is the line drawn between punishment
and torture? Many Americans today on both the left and
the right of the political spectrum agree that solitary confinement for extreme lengths
of time is inhumane, and the data clearly shows that it is counterproductive to rehabilitation. Yet it remains a popular punishment at many
modern prisons. Think back to the man at the start of our
show. He lives in a cell that is two paces across
and four paces long, sleeps on a concrete slab, only has a concrete stool to sit on,
and lives and eats with his open-face toilet always within arm’s reach. He hasn’t been allowed to send nor receive
mail in months, and on average might look forward to two letters a year maximum. The longest conversations he holds are with
the guards that bring him his food, and these are over in seconds. He has lived in the same tiny cell for years,
and with a life sentence he will most likely remain there until the day he dies. For many people that scenario sounds nightmarish,
and some part of their humanity still cries out for at least some basic compassion for
someone sentenced to life in prison. Keep them locked up by all means, but is it
really necessary to keep them imprisoned in such a tiny cell for the rest of their lives? Now, we want you to think about that man again,
and ask yourself, what if that man was a terrorist? Would your feelings on his basic rights and
treatment change at all? The hypothetical scenario we’ve been having
you think about is not hypothetical at all, but rather a reality for dozens of inmates
held at H unit in Colorado’s federal supermax prison. These inmates range from drug lords to major
gang leaders to terrorists, and includes domestic Christian as well as Muslim radicals. Al Qaeda operatives live next door to white
supremacists who had planned massive acts of violence against minority communities,
and been caught the same as their Islamic terrorist counterparts. Known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, this
is where the federal government sends the most dangerous men in America. For these men, they live life inside a prison
that is itself within a prison. Forbidden from contact with the general population,
they instead spend 23 hours a day locked up in their tiny cells. Described by a former warden as a “clean
version of hell”, civil rights attorneys have argued that it was more accurately a
dirty version of hell. That’s because for years the federal government
also kept its most psychotic prisoners locked up here, where they mutilated themselves,
talked to ghosts, and lived in feces-smeared isolation cells for months at a time. Even for the non-psychotic prisoners though,
H Unit is hell on earth. These individuals are subject to what are
known as Special Administrative Measures- or SAMs- measures which govern the rights
of prisoners who are deemed to pose a serious, ongoing threat to public safety and national
security. On top of their extreme isolation, SAM prisoners
are not allowed any contact with the outside world whatsoever, aside from a very carefully
selected and screened number of contacts that typically only include close family members
and their attorneys. This is because of the fear that a prisoner
may communicate via code to criminal or terrorist organizations around the world. In fact, one such case happened in 2005 when
three prisoners wrote letters to suspected terrorists in Europe exhorting jihad. The prisoners denied that their letters were
anything more than generic, personal communications, but the FBI considered the incident a serious
security lapse. Now, the people a prisoner under SAM restrictions
are allowed to contact is severely limited, and the individual on the receiving end of
a letter has to be vetted by federal law enforcement officials before being approved for contact. This makes for a rather short list of people
that a SAM prisoner may be able to communicate with, and even then their letters are thoroughly
screened and censored, a process which can take months. Replies are also screened just as thoroughly,
adding months on the way back. As one prisoner noted, he simply gave up writing
letters to his mother, as it would take three months for her to receive it and three months
for him to receive a reply. These prisoners are afforded very limited
phone calls, and the ones they are allowed to place are extremely restricted and very
closely monitored by FBI and Bureau of Prisons who listen to every word. Even then, phone privileges are very few and
far in between, which makes keeping up with the lives of loved ones practically impossible. Until only recently, SAM prisoners were not
allowed to watch news broadcasts at all, for fear that modern day events might inflame
some radical thoughts and behavior. Of what limited television time a prisoner
may have, which is afforded only to SAM inmates who have earned tier 3 privileges after years
of good behavior, channels are often simply blacked out. Things such as newspapers and magazines are
on a thirty day delay, and political articles are ripped out of the magazines before being
given to prisoners. Day to day life involves their tiny, seventy
five square foot cell, where they stay for twenty three hours a day. While they are supposed to be allowed one
hour of outside recreation per day, often this doesn’t happen if if the short-handed
staff is too busy or if they simply don’t feel like allowing the prisoner out. When they do get to experience their one hour
of rec, they must do so in a metal cage that is approximately four paces wide and eight
paces long, or about twice the size of their cell. Often prisoners can enjoy a basketball hoop
and a deflated soccer or basketball. Still, for men who have spent a decade or
more locked up alone in a tiny cell, just being outdoors again is reward enough. H unit prisoners do not have their own shower
as most solitary units do, and instead they are escorted to a shower several days each
week. However this too can be disrupted by lockdowns
or staffing issues. One prisoner, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, otherwise
known as the failed Underwear bomber, explained what his life inside H Unit was like recently. He claimed that prison staff harassed him
for his religion, and did their best to disrupt his practice of it. He says that he was given no access to a halal
diet, and corrections officers would often mock him and desecrate both his Quran and
prayer rug. He also says that he was subjected to humiliating
strip searches in front of female staff, something deeply offensive for devout Muslims. If the list of abuses sounds familiar, it’s
because many of these same abuses were being regularly carried out on prisoners in the
infamous Abu Ghraib prison by US service members. Abdulmutallab was also forbidden from praying
with others in his religion’s mandatory group prayers, and he had little if any access to
the contracted imam. While he used to be housed in a regular super
maximum security prison, once he was moved to H Unit, contact with many of his friends
and relatives with which he’d been allowed to correspond for years was cut off, including
with his own sister. Books he ordered from amazon to help pass
the time were also rejected without reason, curiously one such rejected book was The Life-Changing
Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Abdulmutallab’s treatment is hardly unique,
and a recent complaint filed in federal court states that, “Mr. Abdulmutallab experiences
life in H Unit at ADX as a struggle to avoid becoming mentally ill.” The stories of other prisoners brought to
life by the federal complaint paint a picture of life at H-unit as a slow journey into oblivion,
a relentless whittling away of family ties, memories, hopes, and even a sense of self. Nidal Ayyad, another inmate, says that if
he had heard some of the stories of what happens inside H unit five years ago he would have
thought that they were crazy, but now he tells of prisoners so deeply disturbed by their
years of isolation that they warn him to turn off his cell’s light because it emits harmful
radiation. These prisoners live inside dark cells day
and night, and some even claim that hot water is poisonous and harmful. Clearly the mental stress of living in isolation
has created a host of psychological problems for these individuals. It can be easy to disregard these complaints
and simply write off H Unit’s inmates as nothing more than the scum of humanity who deserve
exactly what they’re getting, and with some of the world’s most dangerous drug lords,
gang leaders, and terrorists locked up inside, it’s tempting to agree with the sentiment. Yet the conditions inside H Unit speak loudly
about our own values, but we shouldn’t let the hatred and violence of others compromise
our own values and the nation we strive to be. Justice must be served, and evil must be punished,
but how we do these things speaks more about who we really are as a society then our laws
do. Do you think this is inhuman treatment? Let us know in the comments, and as always
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