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.


  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.

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