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May 21, 2009

Are federal supermax prisons tough enough for terrorist detainees?

According to this new AP article, which is headlined "Obama says US prisons tough enough for detainees,"President Obama views federal supermax prisons to be tough enough for government work.  Here is part of an AP report on the President's security speech today:

President Barack Obama said Thursday some of the terror suspects held at Guantanamo would be brought to prisons in the United States despite fierce opposition in Congress. He promised to work with lawmakers to develop a system for imprisoning detainees who can't be tried and can't be turned loose.

"There are no neat or easy answers here," Obama said in a speech in which he pledged anew to "clean up the mess at Guantanamo" that he said the nation had inherited from the Bush administration. Obama conceded that some of the detainees would end up in U.S. prisons and insisted those facilities were tough enough to house even the most dangerous inmates....

Obama noted that roughly 500 detainees already have been released by the Bush administration. There are 240 at Guantanamo now.... "I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo," Obama said. "As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won't permit it. Our courts won't allow it. And neither should our conscience."

Obama said his administration was in the process of studying each of the remaining Guantanamo detainees "to determine the appropriate policies for dealing with them."

"Nobody has ever escaped from one of our `supermax' prisons which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists," Obama said....

He described this [detainee] group as those "who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people."

"I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face," Obama said.  He said that the his administration would "exhaust every avenue that we have" to prosecute detainees but there would still be some left "who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes" yet remain a threat. Among these, he said, are prisoners who have expressed allegiance to Osama bin Laden "or otherwise made it clear they want to kill Americans."

"So going forward, my administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime" to handle such detainees "so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution."

Though I have never actually served time either in a federal supermax facility or at Guantanamo, my sense is that inmate life at a federal supermax facility is actually tougher than inmate life at Guantanamo. But I am basing this statement on mostly third-hand reports.  Indeed, I would be grateful to hear from anyone representing persons in a federal supermax facility and/or at Guantanamo about their impressions about which locale is "tougher" for those held there.

May 21, 2009 at 11:51 AM | Permalink


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I represented a client at Supermax in Florence, Colorado and went there often. It is hard,hard time. But I can't compare it to Guantanamo because I have no firsthand experience with Guantanamo.

Posted by: AFPD | May 21, 2009 11:58:50 AM

I am going to be very surprised if the courts are willing to go along with holding non-convicts in such conditions. And don't expect the ACLU to forget about them just because they are tossed down a different hole.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 21, 2009 12:46:53 PM

and don't forget about habeas corpus rights . . . .

Posted by: federalist | May 21, 2009 1:23:45 PM

I don't think the real goal is to house them in Supermax. The real goal is to get them they heck out of Cuba and then bury the whole matter. Once Gitmo is closed the Republicans will have that issue off their hit list and whatever happens next is going to buried on page nine, not page one. That's the goal. If people feel better about "Supermax" being the first step in that process, so be it.

Posted by: Daniel | May 21, 2009 2:56:04 PM

Supermax is not necessary. Federal prisons in general are plenty secure. These guys do not have superpowers, after all.

And, by the way, it was conceded even by the Bush Administration that many in the Guantanamo population are actually innocent. They shouldn't be in any prison at all.

Posted by: David in NY | May 21, 2009 3:08:30 PM

I am a Univ. of Virginia Law School graduate (J.D. 1987), and have also served almost 8 years in Federal prison, including 2 years at U. S. Penitentiary-1, Coleman, Florida (a High Security, not a SuperMax facility) , where I met several men who had spent years at "Supermax" in Florence, Colorado before being moved back down to a penitentiary. They describe a grim existence of men held in small, spartan single cells, 23+ hours per day, albeit with small black and white T.V.s. and showers in the cells. One man I met had been held in such solitary confinement for 11 years, with an obvious effect on his mental and social functioning. These men receive 1 hour of "outdoor recreation" 5 days per week, again in single dog run-like pens, perhaps 10' x 30', with only a handball. Book carts and clothing exchange are handled thru the food ports in the cell doors. Their only human communication is with the guards and case workers who come by their cells, and by shouting thru the edges of their cell doors to other inmates on their range. Their is even supposed to be a range housing several of the best known "bombers" (including Ted Kyzinski) in the world, which is referred to as "Bombers' Row". Some inmates aren't even permitted to handle their own mail, but view it over a video link. This life, with substantially reduced sensory input, stimulation and human contact is deeply depressing. Many of those inmates receive anti-depressant medicine daily. I understand that there are several different security levels at Gitmo, depending on the danger posed by the detainee and his degree of cooperativeness with his captors. Some are said to even have recliners and color T.V.s in their cells. "Supermax" conditions really aren't necessary for most terrorist detainees, as only 1 Federal prison inmate has escaped from a Penitentiary ("High Security") in the past 15+ years (and he was a state inmate transferred to the Feds from North Dakota, where he had escaped from prison 4 times).

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 21, 2009 4:57:33 PM

I voted for Obama. [Stop laughing.] I did to get the opposite of what was promised. He is going to make the prisoners regret Guantanamo. He ordered the execution of Moslem pirates. And my estimated tax dropped by 5 figures, thanks to Obama.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 21, 2009 7:04:37 PM

Closing Guantanamo became such an emotionally charged issue that there was no reasonable discussion going on. This may become for the Democrats what Terry Shrivo was for the Republicans. It is a gesture not related to the problem.

Of course we can and have held dangerous terrorists in facilities in the United States. Robert Muellor need to become more familiar with our prison facilities. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to construct and staff such facilities. Those communities that have benefited from this expansion and employment cannot say that they didn't sign up for it.

Posted by: beth | May 21, 2009 9:37:19 PM

Jim Gormley's description of life in SuperMax reminded me of the original "penitentiary" outside Philadelphia (then; now, it is within Philadelphia, i.e., the Eastern State Penitentiary). My understanding of that one is that liberal Quakers designed a program of almost entire isolation, with food and other exchanges through a slot in the door and an individual outdoor "pen" for exercise. You went for a few months or a year, with the idea that you would reflect on your crime (penitence) and reform your soul. Apparently a high percentage of the inmates went insane, instead.

I think I'd rather be waterboarded than isolated from human contact like that over the long term. (Thought I don't want to have to choose.)

Posted by: Observer | May 21, 2009 10:38:52 PM

Jim: Assume you have committed a capital offense. Based on your experience on the inside and your talking to people who went to Supermax.

You have a choice. Life in Prison Without Parole. Death Penalty now.

Do you have a preference? Which is crueler in real life?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 21, 2009 11:42:55 PM

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