Exposing supermax prisons: what Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad endured

2018-04-03T15:40:24+00:00 July 20th, 2015|Articles, Detention, Extradition|
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Editor’s note: CAGE is republishing this article following the first press interview of Babar Ahmad since his release and return to the UK. Babar Ahmad’s interviews on The Observer can be found here and here.

Originally posted on Monday, 20 July 2015

Following the release of Talha Ahsan this year and the more recent release of Babar Ahmad CAGE is, for the first time, publishing the full letter written by Hamja Ahsan to the House of Lords Extradition Committee. In this letter and accompanying film, Hamja seeks to provide an insight into the ordeal these two men went through as part of their detention and extradition, including first hand testimony from Talha Ahsan himself.  

Introduction

Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad were housed in the Northern Correctional Institution Supermax prison in indefinite solitary confinement for the duration of their pre-trial detention from their extradition in October 2012 to their final sentencing in July 2014. Supermax prisons within the US provided the blueprint for the system of imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay and other notorious prisons in the War on Terror. The letter reproduced below contains Talha’s first-hand testimony of his experience of imprisonment in the US. Extracts from the sentencing hearing transcripts are also published here for the first time.

Talha Ahsan brother’s Hamja Ahsan, who led the campaign against his extradition and detention, publishes for the first time the full text of a letter to the House of Lords committee on extradition and an accompanying film. The Free Talha Ahsan campaign hope they provide insights into the abusive Supermax prison conditions that Talha endured, following his unjust extradition.

Hamja Ahsan continues to campaign with Stop Isolation and speaks out against abusive treatment of prisoners. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez has called for an international ban on long-term solitary confinement.


The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax

The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax from Yale Visual Law Project on Vimeo.

 

The full letter

To members of the Extradition Committee,

I am the brother of Talha Ahsan. I write out of concern at the long-term trauma and damage caused to British citizens and their families by the kind of treatment he experienced. I hope the committee gives due consideration to the severe distress that this has caused. I was shortlisted for a Liberty human rights award in 2012 for my national campaign on US-UK extradition.

Film illuminating pre-trial detention of Babar Ahmad & Talha Ahsan

The case of my brother Talha Ahsan and his co-defendant Babar Ahmad have appeared on a number of oral and written submissions as a matter of grave public concern. These include submissions from prominent organisations such as Liberty, the Center for Constitutional Rights and, indirectly, Amnesty International’s condemnation of Supermax prisons.  Other high-profile extradition campaigns run by Julia O’Dwyer and David Bermingham expressed concern for the pair in their written and oral submissions.

The  family-run campaigns of Talha and Babar have drawn widespread nationwide support, with 149,000 UK citizens signing an e-petition calling for Babar Ahmad to be prosecuted domestically rather than outsourcing his case to the USA. Professor Jeanne Theoharis described them as “emblems of the injustices and excesses of the war on terror at home”. Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, Chair of the British Institute of Human Rights, cited his case to demonstrate that our current extradition laws are “muddled, unjust, in desperate need of reform.”

The questions of pre-trial prison conditions have been brought up several times by the committee. Yale University Law school  produced a short documentary, The Worst of the Worst, on Northern Correctional Institution, where Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad were housed for the entire duration of their pre-trial detention. It was made and  published in the year of their arrival. For the first time, video access was granted to its interiors, administrators, human rights litigators,  and former inmates. I urge all member of the Lords committee and public to watch this short documentary. It gives a balanced account of the Supermax conditions to which we sent British citizens Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan.

Personal testimony of Talha Ahsan:

In a letter to a friend at the Prisons Advice Service, in the UK, Talha states:

“I mentioned practices that don’t exist in British prisons.  Another example is that of ‘extracting’ inmates from the cell whereby mace gas is sprayed through the trap door.  Despite the staff wearing masks you can still hear them coughing.  Apparently it causes a burning sensation of the skin. This is all filmed by the way.  Some inmates allege that since the camera is only held at an upright angle, inmates on the floor can be kicked.The inmate is then put ‘in cell’, that is into a totally stripped down cell with only a bunk, mattress, safety blanket and the ‘tortoise’ safety suit the inmate wears barefoot; no soap or toothbrush even!  He has to ask staff for toilet paper and to flush the toilet from the outside. Meals are served in polystyrene cups without utensils.”

Talha further expressed distress at witnessing such practices on the phone. Having myself campaigned for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, I was highly disturbed to hear that such extreme practices occurred in the US’s domestic prisons. Whilst Talha himself was not subject to such treatment, it would have been acutely traumatic to witness and the existence of such practices contributed to a sense of distress for his family.

Acute risk of self-harm: Another disturbing incident occurred in the prison in May 2014, when a fellow inmate slashed and mutilated his own leg. On a phone-call home to his family, Talha said the cell looked “like a slaughter house” and that he could even smell the pool of blood from his own cell. Talha was then placed in this cell afterwards with remnants of the prisoners blood still remaining. A recent study, published after a related ECtHR ruling, shows that self-harm occurs in solitary confinement at a 700% increased rate.

Talha Ahsan own Submission can be read here.

US Court transcripts : references pre-trial detention solitary confinement:

At the sentencing hearing,  US defence attorney Terence Ward, representing Babar Ahmad, said of Northern Correctional Facility (p71. line 11-13): “I swear, years from now people will look back at places like Northern and marvel at how we could have ever been so heartless as to house human beings in such a place.”

He described the US facility where Talha Ahsan spent almost 2 years in solitary confinement as “horrendous”. He added, “sensory deprivation is built in the design of the building” (p.71, line 8-11)

Babar Ahmad testified in US Court that (p. 94, line 5-24): “Northern is a place I have been living next to death row inmates for the last two years. I see them every day. The inmates bang and shout and scream all day, all night. And for me to sleep, my bedtime routine consists of five pairs of socks and an empty shampoo bottle. … half an hour before I sleep, I will get the pairs of socks, I will fold them, and I have to make an airtight seal all the way around the door. It has to be done in a certain way with a plastic fork, which takes about 15 minutes in order to stop the noise. Then I will get the empty shampoo bottle and I’ll balance it at a certain angle on the air vent so it has like a wind tunnel effect and makes like a white noise. Only then I can sleep. And several times throughout the night, if the shampoo bottle, if it falls, then the banging will wake me up. And I have to go and I need to go and balance it back before I can sleep. I did it last night and the night before, and it’s been like that for the last two years.”

Talha Ahsan’s attorney Richard Reeve further described the prison: “There’s a great deal of both … intentional and unintentional sensory deprivation” (p. 148, line 25, p 149, line 1)  (p. 147 line 20 – p 148 line 14) “When you enter, you go up in an elevator after you get through all of the security. When you get off the elevator, you are in a metal, aluminum hall. It has a regular concrete floor, but all sides are silver, and it descends. It descends down. When you get to the end of that corridor, at a very bowels of Northern, you take a right. When you take a right, you get in to the death row unit now. The death row unit used to be on the left. Now it’s on the right. But it’s exactly the same. That’s what I think Attorney Ward was talking about. When you walk in, when you are in the visitor room, you are in a glass box. You look out and the only way I can describe Northern is it’s like — you know, the amusement park thing you enter, the fun place, but it has all of these mirrors and reflections and you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. That’s Northern. You can look out and you are seeing mirror images of things but you don’t know if what you are seeing is real, or if what you are seeing is a mirror reflecting what’s behind you. It was all constructed in that way to be as disorienting as possible.”

In November 2014, such prison conditions were criticised in a Center for Constitutional Rights report to the United Nations Committee on the Convention on Torture.

Inverted trajectory for British model prisoners.

Talha was described as a “model prisoner” by UK prison governors at HMP Long Lartin prior to extradition. Janet C. Hall,  the US judge in the sentencing hearing, remarked (p.135, line 17-22) that “while in prison, he was a model prisoner. He’s been in custody for approximately eight years, Has received no violations… he’s conducted himself in a way which reflects well upon him while in custody. I’m not sure that, I, myself could have conducted myself that way.”He had no prior history of criminal conviction or tendency towards violence. Judge Hall even went so far as to say he was a “gentle person”. He was able to call on his family and full range of friends daily. He was able to cook for himself and wear his own clothes. Once brought to a US supermax prison, Talha’s earned privileges were brought down to an extremely punitive isolation prison regime. He was housed with death row inmates and subjected to a similarly harsh regime whilst being an unconvicted foreign national. Most of the daily human stimulation ended. Talha was subject to 23-hour lock-up in a bare concrete cell with one hour a day in a concrete wire cage as recreation.

For the first few months, prison conditions remained so extreme that he was even leg-shackled during showering. Whilst there was a step-down programme offering access to a gym at a later stage, in punitive terms, the extremes of US Supermax prisons at their most lenient go beyond anything we experience in British high security prisons. This is a highly perverse trajectory for a model prisoner – to be transferred to a more punitive regime.

It should be noted that much of the positive and productive behavior referred to by Judge Hall in her final sentencing, as evidence of Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad’s good character in prison, was mostly conducted in UK prisons. This includes educational programming and creative arts workshops that were entirely absent from the US supermax prison. If they had been transferred to a US Supermax prison earlier, they would not have been able to demonstrate their positive characters. The US Supermax prison provided 22-23 hour lockdown in a bare concrete cell, with 1 hour for recreation in a small wire mesh cage. A small book-cart was offered. In British prisons, Talha obtained several certificates of learning and vocational qualifications. He won the leading Platinum prize at the Koestler Award for his poetry and a bronze award for his poetry collection. He had access to computers, education workshops, full access to the gym and full access to the library. He taught English language classes to his fellow inmates. There was no opportunity to prove such substantial constructive behaviour in the Supermax regimes.

Insights from Prisoners Abroad:

British Charity Prisoners Abroad, the only UK charity dedicated to caring for British citizens overseas, was referred to us by the British consulate.  It has said that, of 1,700 British citizens that the charity cares for, “ more are in need of help in the United States than anywhere else.”  Pauline Crowe, the chief executive of Prisoners Abroad, expressed concern about the extradition of Christopher Tappin: “shocking to discover that the conditions people suffer in many American prisons are abusive, degrading and dangerous.”

“As a result many American prisons fail to reach even basic standards of dignity, respect and safety. On a daily basis Prisoners Abroad deals with many Britons who face a struggle to survive in these dangerous and terrifying conditions. The impact can be devastating, both emotionally and psychologically and last long after the time they are released. Whether it’s flashbacks and nightmares, terror of being with people and terror of being alone, or a complete loss of basic social and decision making skills, the sentence doesn’t end when the prison doors open.”

My recommendation to the select committee would be to consider the hands-on experiences of Prisoners Abroad, given its extensive experience and broad perspective on multiple international prisons’ abuses and shortcomings. Prisoners Abroad is currently supporting 258 prisoners in the USA, which is nearly a quarter of the people it is helping. Last year, Prisons Abroad helped 358 in USA out of 1588 over the whole year.

Outstanding concerns despite negative judgement ECtHR case Babar Ahmad:

The post-conviction prison of ADX Florence was examined in depth in a related ECtHR judgement but pre-trial solitary confinement was not addressed. Please note: this judgement has been described by 26 human rights groups and 150 academics in the United States as a grostesque misrepresentation.  Those with long-term litigation experience on this issue, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Colorado Law Project, agree. Professors Jeanne Theoharis and Saskia Sassen have said it will give “a green light to torture”. An academic critical review described the ECtHR decision as weakening the absolute universal protection of Article 3 in an expulsion context as opposed to a domestic context . The judgement has also been deemed in a peer-reviewed academic paper as ““a worrying case of cultural relativism” ”.

Amy Jeffries, formerly of the US Embassy, falsely asserted before members of the committee that this ECtHR judgement said that American prisons were better than European prisons. The judges said no such thing, nor did they advance such a position. They merely noted that at ADX Florence the range of in-cell activities – such as hobby craft items and TV channels – and services (largely provided by technological means) “goes beyond what is provided in many prisons in Europe.”

In relation to Lord Mackay of Drumadoon’s concerns about US prisons, Amy Jeffries claims “the European Court concluded that the conditions in US prisons are, in fact, superior in many ways to those in many European prisons….The broader point, though, that I would like to make about this is that there is criticism about prison conditions in the United States. I think they are actually broadly similar to those in the United Kingdom, from what I know, although you are correct also that there is some variation between the federal and state prison systems, and particularly certain states. More broadly, the United States prisons are humane; they are well run and well operated.”

But the sweeping assertion that US prisons are well run is addressed in a letter from Talha:  “Shifts are: 0700-1500; 1500-2300; 2300-0700.  What amazes me is that some staff work double shifts – that’s 16 hours! And they still  turn up for 1st shift next day. Some staff even combine 3rd shift and 1st shift or 2nd and 3rd.” These prisons are “woefully underfunded. Sentenced inmates are expected to contribute to  health care like $2 for a dentist appointment. Six housing blocks have been reduced to two functioning ones: one east and one west (where I am with the seven other ‘special needs’ inmates next to Death Row). At Long Lartin I was used to an almost endless supply of clothes, shoes, towels, toiletries and so on. Here only an indigent inmate (defined as having less than $5 at admission or for 90 days) qualify for toiletries, a change of the 3 pieces of underwear, T-shirts and socks every couple of months and a sweater (but no ‘sweatpants’ as they are called here).“

Concerns over transparency of US prisons.

My additional concern is that full transparency and access has not been granted to human rights investigators at US Supermax prisons.

In a statement of concern for Talha Ahsan and five other terror suspects extradited to the US, Amnesty International noted that a request to visit ADX Florence, to view the conditions first-hand, was turned down by the US authorities in July 2012. This refusal remains in place. Howard League President (Scotland branch) Professor Andrew Coyle, serving as prisons adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also been denied access to ADX Florence on several occasions.  US-based human rights bodies such as Human Rights Watch have also been denied access to ADX Florence.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez has also been barred from full access to US supermax prisons. There exists at present a campaign in the USA to lift this bar. A coalition of 50 civil and human rights groups are calling on the US to take a step toward granting Mr. Méndez an official invitation to examine long-term solitary confinement in US prisons. No headway has been made yet and no findings published. Full information can be found on the ACLU website.

Troubling questions remain as to why the USA is continuing to block transparency and greater accountability in the first instance.

I hope this correspondence and film can aid the investigations and findings of the committee.

I am happy to aid the committee on any further queries. I have CC’ed Valarie Kaur, the director of the film referred to in this letter, for further details.

I remain seriously concerned about the long-term psychological damage that imprisonment in Northern Correctional Institutional Supermax prison has caused to my brother Talha Ahsan.

Any feedback or questions regarding the film would be most welcome.

Sincerely,

Hamja Ahsan


For more information on Free Talha Ahsan campaign, please visit:

www.freetalha.org

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If you would like Hamja Ahsan to speak about these issues at your local Stop the War coalition group, student union, mosque, community group please email: info@freetalha.org  


Notes

[1] Supplementary notes to the film:

A staff member of Northern Correctional Institution is reported to have said the film is “a very accurate portrayal of their experience, in a way that no other media outlet has done.” (Yale Daily News – Lavinia Borza, 18th November, 2013)

These harsh conditions are inextricably linked to the other concerns the committee has raised, including the pressure to plea bargain. As Talha notes in his own submission, he witnessed a number of suicide attempts and extreme self-harm in the prison. Inmates were also clearly suffering from severe mentally illnesses. Suicide rates are 600% higher in US solitary confinement and self-harm is 700% higher. As US Senator Dick Durbin notes, 50% of all prison suicides in the US occur among those in solitary confinement, who are less than 5% of the total prison population.

The film’s director Valarie Kaur, a noted Sikh human rights advocate and interfaith activist, had earlier visited Guantanamo Bay on a delegation with the National Institute of Military Justice. Significantly, the similarities she noticed between Guantanamo and the Supermax prison near her university  provided one of the prime motivations to make the film. In phone calls and letters to me, Talha Ahsan reported that he has witnessed a number of disturbing practices which are reminiscent of those in Guantanamo which have attracted media interest and the public’s attention . This includes the practice of “forced cell extraction” in which inmates are removed from their cell by gassing. He could hear inmates being forcibly choked. It was reported in recent published correspondence by an inmate, DJ Taylor, and can be independently verified that the practice of forced-feeding also occurred in the Northern Correctional Institute. US Law Professor John Foreman Jr. has described how the degrading and shocking procedures and operations at Guantanamo are exports from the domestic prison system.

The UK premier of this documentary was organised by Free Talha Ahsan campaign in partnership with the International State Crime Initiative research centre at Kings College, University of London, on 16th May 2013. Caroline Lucas MP, Amnesty International expert on US prisons Tessa Murphy, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella (two investigative journalists who run the New York-based campaign project Solitary Watch highlighting prison abuses in solitary confinement in the US) were tabled as speakers for this event, with Q & A. The event was chaired by Dr. Ian Patel, a staff member at the International State Crime Initiative who has published investigative journalism on Talha Ahsan’s ECtHR judgement in the New Statesman. This event can be viewed here.

 

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)