Investigative Report Alleges 'Human Rights Abuses' At Colorado's Supermax Prison

Jun 27, 2019

A recently published article in The Nation magazine alleges potential human rights violations have taken place at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, also known as Supermax or ADX. The 18-month investigation by Brooklyn-based investigative journalist Aviva Stahl found inmates held in a certain unit there had been force-fed and barred from sharing their stories with the outside world.

Investigative journalist Aviva Stahl spent 18 months conducting interviews about the conditions on H Unit at Supermax in Florence, Colo.
Credit Photo Courtesy Aviva Stahl

The World Medical Association has publicly opposed the practice of force-feeding, saying it violates the "core ethical values of the medical profession." Some experts consider the practice to be torture.

In her article, Stahl describes inmates at ADX as subjected to "more extreme conditions of isolation and sensory deprivation than any other facility in the country," spending 22 to 24 hours a day alone in a room "about five steps long and ten steps wide."

Her work--an investigation including interviews with lawyers and physicians, open records requests, and correpsondence with former inmates--focuses on a certain cell block within Supermax called H Unit.

"In some circumstances and in some ways, there is greater transparency when it comes to the conditions at Guantanamo than when it comes to the conditions on H Unit at ADX which is an American prison, on American soil that holds American citizens."

Conditions there are even more stark. Prisoners are put under communication restrictions known as special administrative measures or SAMs — that includes one phone call a month, all letters read and redacted by the FBI, no press access, lawyers being prohibited from sharing what they are told by clients, for example.

Stahl spoke with 91.5 KRCC about her findings. Below are a few excerpts from the interview:

About the former inmate who is the focus of the article:

"Mohammed Salameh was convicted of participating in the 1993 World Trade Center attack. From 1994, after his conviction, until 2001, he was in a variety of high security facilities across the U.S. but not the Supermax because he wasn't perceived as being a national security threat or a threat to the public. Then after 9/11, he and a lot of other high-profile men convicted of terrorism offenses were moved very suddenly to the ADX — really without explanation. And then in 2005 without explanation or rationale, they were moved onto H Unit." 

(Note: Mohammed Salameh is currently housed at the United States Penitentiary, Big Sandy, a high-security United States federal prison for male inmates in Kentucky.)

About Salameh’s decision to hunger strike, as told to Stahl:

"He went on hunger strike five or six times and was force-fed about 200 times over the course of a decade. He was protesting his conditions of confinement, pretty much the SAMs that he was living under. His demands, sometimes, were in the larger sense pretty minimal. He wanted more phone calls per month. [In the case of] other hunger strikes, the men wanted to be able to have non-contact visits with their families without their shackles on or to be able to write more letters."

A description of force-feeding procedures, as told to Stahl by Salameh:

Mohammad Salameh was force-fed nearly 200 times in 11 years at a supermax Colorado prison.
Credit Photo Courtesy Mohammad Salameh / The Nation

"When Mr. Salameh was force-fed he'd first be, kind of, escorted out of his cell by a force team. He'd be brought by the force team to a medical room. Then he would be strapped into a force-feeding chair. He'd have his hands handcuffed behind his back. He'd have his leg irons on. He'd have straps put on his legs across his waist, across his chest [and] on his arms. There would be two guards holding his head and a physician's assistant would come over, take a tube, measure it from his mouth to his abdomen, and then insert it into his stomach."

On a particular incident during a force-feeding that stood out to Stahl:

"This one force-feeding that Mr. Salameh experienced that he told me about...happened in 2006. He was brought into the force-feeding room [and] strapped into the chair. The P.A., physician's assistant, started feeding him and Mr. Salameh vomited up the first carton of nutritional supplement that was put into the tube. Instead of stopping the procedure, the physician's assistant continued to put more supplement down the tube. Mr. Salameh vomited it back up, and this continued and continued and continued until Mr. Salameh had been force-fed 16 cartons of nutritional supplement. That's about a gallon of the liquid — only to vomit it all up in turn."

The men in this prison and unit have been convicted of really terrible crimes, so one might say they don’t deserve to have rights. On why this matters:

"The first important thing to know about hunger strikes are that they're a political act, not a medical situation. What I mean by that is, hunger strikers don't want to die — they're just trying to use their bodies as a form of political protest. The reason that's important is because doctors aren't supposed to treat people without their consent. Just like if you [or] I went to the hospital and we were found to be mentally competent and we declined care, it would be unethical for doctors to forcibly provide treatment. The same is true of prisoners on the inside."

On seeking a response from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP):

"...hunger strikers don't want to die. They're just trying to use their bodies as a form of political protest. The reason that's important is because doctors aren't supposed to treat people without their consent."

"I sent both the DOJ and the BOP a pretty extensive list of questions. The DOJ just referred me to the BOP and the BOP said they were just following regulations."

On what Stahl sees as the implications of her report:

"In some circumstances and in some ways, there is greater transparency when it comes to the conditions at Guantanamo than when it comes to the conditions on H Unit at ADX which is an American prison, on American soil that holds American citizens. I think that's something [that] if you're someone who thinks about government transparency or believes in public accountability, and the press is a key part of government accountability... I think that's really worrying."