Conditions in U.S. Supermax Prison Better Than Most in Europe, European Court of Human Rights Finds

By Patrick Goodenough | April 11, 2012 | 4:56 AM EDT

Guard towers at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. (AP Photo/File)

( – The Supermax prison in Colorado where the most dangerous criminals in America are incarcerated provides prisoners with more generous services and activities than do most prisons in Europe, says the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court’s acknowledgement came in a ruling Tuesday, provisionally approving the extradition of five terror suspects to face trial in the United States. (See related story)

Lawyers for radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza and five other men indicted in the U.S. on various terror charges between 1999 and 2006 argued that, should they be convicted in the U.S., they would face conditions of incarceration and length of prison terms that would amount to “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” in violation of article three of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court rejected the argument, with the seven judges agreeing unanimously that article three would not be contravened “as a result of conditions of detention at ADX Florence” in Colorado, should the suspects be extradited to the U.S. (ADX stands for Administrative Maximum.)

It said that although inmates at the ADX Florence facility are confined to their cells most of the time, they are also “provided with services and activities (television, radio, newspapers, books, hobby and craft items, telephone calls, social visits, correspondence with families, group prayer) which went beyond what was provided in most prisons in Europe.”

The judges also noted that, according to the Department of Justice, 89 of the prison’s 252 inmates were in a “step-down program.”

“This showed that the applicants, if convicted and transferred to ADX, would have a real possibility under such a program of moving through different levels of contact with others until being suitable for transfer to a normal prison,” the court stated.

The step-down program runs on a three-year cycle. Inmates are kept in their cells 23 hours a day for the first year, then gradually allowed contact with other inmates and prison staff. In the third year they may be out of their cells for up to 16 hours a day and eat meals in a dining room.

Among high-profile prisoners serving life sentences at the prison 45 miles south of Colorado Springs are Richard Reid, who used explosives hidden in his shoe to try to blow up a U.S.-bound flight; confessed al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef; and five al-Qaeda terrorists convicted for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens.

Also held there is Randall Ismail Royer, a former Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) civil rights coordinator serving a 20 year sentence after pleading guilty to aiding four co-defendants – members of a Northern Virginia “jihad network” – to undergo training with Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based group which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in late 2001.

Other ADX Florence lifers, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmate locator, include “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, former FBI agent and Russian spy Robert Hanssen, and Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols.

According to a document on the Bureau of Prisons’ Web site, dated March 30, 2011, ADX Florence inmates may receive five visits a month, with up to three visitors each time. Visits may last a maximum of seven hours, and kissing and embracing are permitted at the beginning and end of visits. Otherwise no physical contact is allowed, although “occasional hand holding is acceptable.”

Items available for sale on a comprehensive commissary list (conditions and limits apply) include food and snacks, beverages, toiletries, over-the-counter medications, stationery, clothing and miscellaneous items such as watches, batteries, games, digital radios and prayer rugs ($33.99 each).

Another ADX Florence document states that inmates may participate in approved organized activities including basketball, handball, table games and “special holiday activities.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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