Voices from Solitary: Life in H-Unit, ADX Federal Supermax

adx watchtowersThe excerpts that follow come from a declaration by Mahmud Abouhalima, who was convicted of taking part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (a charge he still denies). Sentenced to 240 years, he initially spent most of his time in the general population at federal maximum security prisons, where he was permitted to hold a job, make phone calls, visit family, watch television, read what he chose, and pray with other Muslims.

On 9/11, Abouhalima was placed in solitary confinement, and eventually transferred to ADX Florence in rural Colorado, the federal government’s only supermax prison. In 2005, after exchanging letters with a Muslim prisoner in Spain, he was subjected to “Special Administrative Measures” (SAMs), which ban virtually all communications with the outside world, and placed in ADX’s H-Unit.

The declaration, which describes Abouhalima’s life in H-Unit, was compiled for Ayyad v. Holder, a civil action filed in Federal District Court in Colorado. It challenges his confinement on the grounds that it violates his right to due process. Among other things, it claims that the FBI is deeply involved in managing prisoners in the unit, even to the point of overriding Bureau of Prisons officials. The declaration has been heavily redacted by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.  –James Ridgeway

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Since September 11, 2001, through today, I have been in administrative detention and faced brutal and systematic mental, spiritual, and psychological cruelty. I never believed that such an unusual punishment would be extended up until today, where I have lived in a prison cell for the last ten years that is the size of a closet. I am fed like a zoo animal through a slot in the door, and manacled and chained at the hands, waist, and legs when I leave the cell. A black box with heavy lock is placed on top of my wrist chains in addition to this when I am escorted out of the unit, like to the hospital or to a visit…

Sitting in a small box in a walking distance of eight feet, this little hole becomes my world, my dining room, reading and writing area, sleeping, walking, urinating, and defecating. I am virtually living in a bathroom, and this concept has never left my mind in ten years. The toilet only works if you flush it once every five minutes, so if I press the flush button twice by mistake, I have to wait for up to an hour, with the smell of urine and defecation still there, everywhere I go, sit, stand, or sleep.

For my first four years in segregation, I kept fighting paranoia. I became suspicious of everything around me. If I heard the range door open, I stood up, feeling that they were coming to take me away, even though I didn’t expect to go anywhere. The one hour a day of rec outside the cell didn’t heal a damn thing. I struggled with myself, telling myself that maybe next month, next year it will be better and I would be out of solitary confinement. Eventually I lost all hope of getting out of segregation.

I lost appetite and just wanted to sleep. This was the first time in my life that I experienced the brutality of force feeding. I also heard and saw other inmates being taken by guards and medical staff in combat gear and with cameras. Sometimes an inmate screamed so loud that I could hear him…

I subscribed to a few magazines, like crochet and sports magazines, the Nation, and the Atlantic Monthly. When the first issue of the sports magazine arrived at the prison, SIS staff forwarded a copy of the magazine to the FBI office and refused to release it to me without FBI approval. The same thing happened to all of the magazines. The crochet and sports magazines were returned to me after a few weeks’ delay, with a few pages removed. However, other magazines with political articles were reduced literally to only a few pages.

For example, the first several issues of the Nation magazine were reduced from around fifty pages to only fifteen to twenty pages. I was told that the FBI removed all articles related to politics, as they don’t want us to read anything about politics. The same thing happened with the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, and other magazines. A simple book like the world almanac was rejected twice because, according to the FBI, certain information in it could be used for terrorism. I filed administrative remedies and they were all denied, because the BOP could not override an FBI decision…

Over the last six years, three of my uncles, my grandfather, my aunt, and my uncle’s daughter have all passed away. I submitted request after request just to send condolence letters to my family mourning these deaths. I also requested to speak with my aunt before she died of cancer. They denied all of these requests…

An incoming letter in Arabic from my mother and brother was rejected because my brother wrote that an old friend said hello to me. The letter was sent back to Egypt after sitting in the FBI office for two months…

It is clear to me now that the FBI, not the BOP, is the agency that objects at each program review to my advancement into a tiny little program that would allow me to be on the same range, inside the same unit, with one or two inmates for only one hour…

In or around March 2011, a member of the ADX executive staff told me that, from the BOP perspective, they have no problem approving me to Phase 3 [a lower security level], and that everything they are told by the FBI about my letters to my children are absolutely irrelevant to prison management, but because they are not in control of the SAMs, the ADX or the BOP cannot do a thing…

I asked the FBI agent about the requests to contact family relatives that I had submitted over the past five or six years. She said to submit four names to her, as the FBI office had now decided that it would only approve four such requests. I asked her how long it would take for the FBI to approve the requests, and she said two months. I submitted all of the required information on the form they provided me, and resubmitted this information with additional information on March 5, 2011.

I tried to question the FBI agent on her misinterpretation in her report, but they wouldn’t let me. I asked her about another FBI report I had read, commenting on one of my letters in English to my son encouraging him to respect, to love, to cherish the parents’ bond with their children, as a call to an illegal and criminal act. She said that she didn’t remember that. I pulled the report out of a small envelope I had, but again Mr. Brieschke stopped me and said not to give her anything, because this was not the time or place to discuss such things. I was confused, and said they had told me I could ask questions…

I pray that the court will order a meaningful process for these SAMs renewals and a program to follow to get the SAMs restrictions removed from me and ultimately liberate me from the indefinite solitary confinement of the ADX and into an open and less restrictive prison.

Comments

  1. Barbara Pampalone says:

    When did we cease to be a civilized country? What does who gain by cruel and unusual punishment like this?

  2. Brian Nelson says:

    The land of liberty is the leader of torture. Why not allow Juan Mendez from the United Nations to inspect U.S. prisons in his official capacity!

  3. Can this really be happened in america.We used to think its only Russia or Iran or some other far off place that does this..

  4. Jarrod Leitzel says:

    You have to remember this is an inmates perspective, and most likely a terrorists perspective. If any person would work in these conditions they would see why inmates like this one above are held with such restrictions. Everything is not cut and dry like the inmate states. Just because an inmate does not want to eat and just sleep does not automatically subject them to force feeding. It is a long process that is tracked and has certain guidelines. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual inmates vital signs. Once an inmate has stopped eating for a long period of time they have their vital signs checked on a daily basis. Only when there vitals are at a critical level; where if they do not have food, and they may suffer serious health issues which could lead to death are they force fed. This is not for punishment, it is for the inmates health. You can not simply let an inmate under your supervision die.

  5. al Mathis says:

    Waaaaahh… Freakin terrorist should have thought a little before he tried to blow up a building with innocent people in it. I hope he suffers daily for the rest of his miserable life.

  6. Jean Vitayanuvatti says:

    of course you can’t let an inmate under your supervision die. It would be a political embarrassment, among other things and with far-reaching repercussions. If the inmates weren’t treated in such a barbaric manner to begin with, they’d still be miserable but they wouldn’t be wanting to end their lives. Suicide rates are high at the ADX. Is it any wonder? Take them out of isolation and restrict the sensory deprivation and the problem is solved. No more bad publicity. I’ve worked with more than one inmate who has spent time at the ADX, and calling it a “cleaner version of Hell” and what this particular inmate experienced is just the tip of the iceberg. I have no sympathy for any person who acted as a terrorist and caused lives to be lost. We are being judged, however, by the way we treat our prisoners and we’re expected to treat them in the same manner as other civilized countries do. On all counts, we have failed miserably and we’re not only guilty of numerous human rights violations but we’ve turned our federal and state prisons into bloated, fiscal nightmares that will take years to deflate in order to bring relief to taxpayers as common sense returns to our criminal justice system. Only in the past few years, have some states begun to attempt to turn things around and as usual, the feds have to be dragged by the hair, kicking and screaming up the tunnel to the light. Last year, finally, our U.S. Attorney General publicly acknowledged the problem. This week we held the second Senate Judiciary Subcommittee (on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights) hearing on the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement. Some progress. Forced feeding is extremely painful. So is sensory deprivation and the separation of senses and destruction of a person’s empathy and other emotions…to put anyone through this is nothing but outright torture. It’s hard for a country to be a world leader and proponent of civil and human rights when hiding the shame of a nation under her skirts.

  7. Abdullah Mahmud says:

    This is my father who is providing his perspective here. I have visited him four times already and my fifth visit is coming up very soon. When my visitation with him occurs, there is no physical contact, simply a glass barrier between us and we must speak on the phone. He still maintains his innocence, even after being in prison for twenty years. I don’t doubt that he may have known some of the actual perpetrators of the crime, but unfortunately he is one of the unfortunate few people who have been simply proven guilty by association. I will not go into details about his court trial back in 1993, but it’s fair to say that he was convicted unanimously by a prejudiced jury, in fact, almost anybody accused of terrorism and has a Muslim background will inevitably be found guilty simply because the public is so hungry to lock them all up. The preconceived notion of Muslims being terrorists makes it impossible for people such as my father to have a fair trial in this country. Those who are quick to call him a terrorist should really think about what they are saying before they speak.

  8. Maybe Mahmud should have thought about the chances of getting caught before he even entered our country. He never has been known for being smart. He was caught while attempting to get his deposit back from the rented truck that blew up as he was attempting to kill thousands of people in the WTC.

  9. Abdullah Mahmud says:

    Mr. Abouhalima was not the man apprehended getting back money for the Uhaul truck. That was another individual so get your facts straight.

  10. It may be difficult for U.S. citizens to believe that Islam is a religion of peace when horror stories about Isis abound. These ‘warriors” who fight in the name of Islam, take women and turn them into sex slaves, crucify those who do not believe in their form of Islam and show no mercy to anyone else who has the misfortune to cross their path. It is this atmosphere that creates our rationale to lock up convicted terrorists and throw away the key. Your father was convicted of crimes in a court of law here but keeping him in solitary forever may not be the answer. If he has a clean record, he should be afforded the chance to move to a slightly less restrictive environment, but because of his conviction, he cannot go free.

  11. Abdullah Mahmud says:

    Thank you for agreeing that my father should be given the opportunity to live in a less restricted environment with good behavior. In fact, he never exhibited negative behavior even before the events of 9/11 yet he is being placed in solitary confinement indefinitely for no apparent reason. At this very moment, Mr. Abouhalima has a couple high profile lawyers that are working pro bono on his behalf to have his civil rights restored and not be subjected to the inhumane condition of indefinite solitary confinement. My father has been at ADX max since 2003, so it’s been over 10 years.

  12. I have read a short history of your father’s life. He left Egypt because it did not offer a future for him and eventually he came here. America is a place where anyone who is willing to work hard, can have a decent life. Yet your father chose to participate in a bombing that could have killed many in New York. The wonder of this country is that if he did not agree with our policies here, he was free to leave, or, because of our free speech guarantee, he could have voiced his opinion to effect a change. Your father seems to have wasted a chance at a good, productive life.

  13. NYNighthawk says:

    Your father knew what his friends were up to- he said nothing. Innocent people died and he was caught- end of story.

  14. Abdullah,

    Your father is an amazing writer, and has shown great courage in resisting the cruel treatment experienced by everyone locked up in ADX Florence. No matter what he did or didn’t do, nobody deserves the type of torture and degradation that people are put through there. Also, you have shown great courage by continuing to stand up for your father’s rights – in spite of living in a barbaric culture like the US where a huge number of people support the abuse of prisoners (exemplified by the comments of anonymous cowards like “NYNighthawk” and “al Mathis” above). Most countries in the world do not treat prisoners like this even for the worst of crimes. I hope that your father will ultimately be released so that he can be back with his family, but barring that, I hope that he can at least get out of ADX Florence and be back in general population. Best wishes to you and your family, and please don’t give up hope.

    Love and solidarity,
    Jesse

  15. NYNighthawk says:

    Jesse- you are a jerk for saying – that this is not the worst of crimes. Planting a bomb so innocent people can be hurt is a horrible act and for not trying to stop such behavior- leave him where he is!!!!!!!!

  16. Abdullah Mahmud says:

    Jesse, I really appreciate the wonderful comments you left. I truly get happy when I find out that there are still some Americans out there who believe in human rights even for prisoners who have been implicated in the most heinous of crimes. I have visited my father five times in the past 6 years so I am acutely aware of the conditions that he must endure. In terms of my fathers guilt or innocence, it is really irrelevant now because the chances of him being freed from prison are very slim. It is worth mentioning that my father has three lawyers who have been working for him pro bono for the past 5 or 6 years defending his civil rights and essentially trying to get him out of the ADX Florence location. They were litigating his case in court for many years and unfortunately, as of two months ago, the US Appeals Court in Colorado approved the “summary Judgment” request of the US Federal Government and denied my fathers claim to essentially be given the right to leave the ADX Prison facility. My father is currently living under SAM restrictions, which are “Special Administrative measures” that severely restrict his communication with the outside world even with his own family and prevent him from being able to accelerate his ability to leave the ADX Max facility. In terms of his writing ability, I must say he has so much free time, compassion, and enthusiasm. The lawyers who are representing him are amazed at the level of mental alertness and enthusiasm that he expresses in every phone call and visit he has with them. I am truly blessed to have such a caring and wonderful father and I pray and hope that he will be transferred to another prison where he can have the chance at a more “normal” life. currently when visits are made at ADX, there is a glass barrier between the visitor and the inmate. So that’s something I certainly would like to see change in the future. Once again, thank you for your great comments and I look forward to any future correspondence from you in the future. thank you.

  17. NYNighthawk says:

    Your father is living very well; he has a clean cell- has three (3) hot meals brought to him every day- has tv -radio and a shower. He cannot be harmed by other violent prisoners who would want to punish him for his silence of what was being planned at the WTC. He gets out to exercise and is given the best medical care. How selfish you are in that you never speak about the victims your father’s silence help create!

  18. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    The prison environment is an excellent Petri Dish and any sadistic guards who are working there are an equally effective growth medium.

    Take for example this article on ISIS.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/camp-bucca-the-us-prison-that-became-the-birthplace-of-isis-9838905.html

    “Camp Bucca provided a unique setting for both prisoner radicalization and inmate collaboration — and was formative in the development today’s most potent jihadist force.

    In all, nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Bucca.

    The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.

    Former prison commander James Skylar Gerrond wrote on Twitter in July,

    “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.”

    From the ashes of what former inmates called an “al-Qaeda school,” rose the Islamic State.

    When those inhabitants freed in 2009 returned to Baghdad, the Post reported, they spoke of two things: their conversion to radicalism — and revenge.”

    *********

    It is a global problem as this article illustrates.

    Prison Inmate Who ‘Planned To Kidnap Guard’ Found With IS Flag And Plans Of Prison

    The Huffington Post UK/PA
    Posted: 26/10/2014 15:01 GMT

    But how can their radical message be neutralized?

    Alienation of all inmates has only pushed many non-radicals into the radicals’ camp.

    Brutalizing those innocent of crimes did not work in Iraq nor has it worked in our prison system where being unjustly labeled a member of a STG has meant years of Admin Seg for many.

    I do not know which is the case with this man here but I hope it is not more injustice.

  19. NYNighthawk says:

    They are being held in isolation so they cannot learn more of this jihad crap or fatwahs. They are being treated very well- read my prior post. They have baseboard heating with extra blankets in the winter- they have central air conditioning in the summer. They have all the comforts of home except for being able to commit more terrorism.

  20. Waa, waa, waa. So the terrorist doesn’t like his accommodations? My heart bleeds for him. Perhaps he should’ve thought about what prison might be like before he tried to murder several thousand people. Just a thought.

  21. NYNighthawk says:

    Abdullah/Jess both have come to their senses and realized I was right about the first class standards papa has. Papa spends his rec time with the Unabomber, Sammy the Bull Gravano and Ramzi Yuseff. I love to listen into those conversations.

  22. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    @NYNighthawk

    Networking with the professor? Just imagine what Kaczynski could teach that French bomb-maker David Drugeon who apparently has survived our attempt at taking him out. I bet he’s pretty pissed off about that right now.

    Haven’t we learned anything from Camp Bucca? We allowed the Ba’ath Party generals and the Islamists to share their skill sets? Now according to you we are allowing organized crime figures and convicted foreign and domestic terrorists to exchange their ideas and beliefs. I hope that no such hybrid organization ever sprouts on the street it would be another volatile and dangerous combination.

    Such a cross-pollination should be of concern to us all.

  23. NYNighthawk says:

    Alan- get ahold of yourself. They can talk all they want- they cant do anything but go back to their respective cells with the contents of their conversations. I have no problem with that. How about throwing out a little sympathy for the Officers guarding thee folks?

  24. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    You are well paid for your job of choice. I hope that you are a humanitarian that does not abuse these men in our name. You would not want to be responsible for further radicalizing those who will one day be released.

    Ironically I just read this informative article while waiting for your reply.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/11/-sp-isis-the-inside-story?CMP=share_btn_tw

    “If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”

    Several senior American officers who ran detention operations – have admitted that the prisons had an incendiary effect on the insurgency.

    The Iraqi government estimates that 17 of the 25 most important Islamic State leaders running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US prisons between 2004 and 2011.
    Isis made an approach to the Ba’athist remnants of the old regime – ideological opponents who shared a common enemy in the US and the Shia-led government it backed under the same premise that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

    “For us it was an academy,” Abu Ahmed said, “but for them” – the senior leaders – “it was a management school. There wasn’t a void at all, because so many people had been mentored in prison.

    “We had so much time to sit and plan,” he continued. “It was the perfect environment. We all agreed to get together when we got out. The way to reconnect was easy. We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009, many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”

    With the help of new arrivals at Bucca, those inside the prison had been able to monitor every new development in the unfolding sectarian war. Abu Ahmed knew the environment he was returning to. And his camp commanders had plans for him.
    The first thing he did when he was safe in west Baghdad was to undress, then carefully take a pair of scissors to his underwear. “I cut the fabric from my boxers and all the numbers were there. We reconnected. And we got to work.” Across Iraq, other ex-inmates were doing the same. “It really was that simple,” Abu Ahmed said, smiling for the first time in our conversation as he recalled how his captors had been outwitted.

    “Boxers helped us win the war.”

    First a battle against an invading army, then a score to be settled with an ancient sectarian foe, and now, a war that could be acting out an end of days prophecy.”

    Thus I am not over reacting!

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