Death, Yes, but Torture at Supermax?

Taken from: The Atlantic, June 4th 2012
Written by Andrew Cohen:

A new federal lawsuit alleges that officials at America’s most famous prison are legally responsible for the suicide of an inmate.

Jose Martin Vega was no saint. Convicted in 1995 of 15 counts of racketeering and armed drug trafficking, he was sentenced, at the age of 20, to four consecutive life sentences. Nine years after his conviction, and after a violent confrontation at another maximum security federal prison, Vega found himself at the United States Penitentiary — Administrative Maximum (“ADMAX” or “ADX”) near Florence, Colorado. As its name suggests, this lonely place is where America sends many of its most troublesome prisoners.

Vega first came to ADX on April 5, 2004. Six years and 26 torturous days later he was dead — at the age of 35. On May 1, 2010, using a bed sheet, Vega hanged himself in his cell in the control unit of the prison, an especially isolating part of the facility. Although Vega was not shackled when he hanged himself, the photos contained in the coroner’s report show an unconscious man shackled at the hands and feet while prison officials are administering rescue efforts. At ADX, in the control unit especially, even the dead or dying are shackled.

Fremont County Deputy Coroner Carlette Brocious estimated the time of Vega’s death at 9:10 a.m., but she noted in her report that “the scene of the death was ‘cleaned up’ when I sought to go out to the prison to finish my investigation. Therefore, I was unable to go to the scene of the death, see the cloth utilized as a ligature or talk to anyone other than the attending PA [physician assistant] regarding the decedent.” She had first seen Vega’s body hours later, at a local hospital, where it had been brought, still shackled, by prison officials.

Brocious also noted in her report that she talked with two prison health officials about Vega and was told by Mark Kellar, ADX’s health administrator, “that the decedent had a long psychiatric history. … As to whether or not the decedent had ever attempted suicide previously neither men could tell me.” That “psychiatric history,” and how ADX officials dealt with it in Vega’s case, is at the heart of an important new federal lawsuit that seeks to dig down deeper into ADX’s mental health policies and practices.

Why should we care about how our most difficult prisoners are treated? Why should we interfere with a “prison code,” expressed or implied, that emphasizes both the use of official force and the denial of official help to humiliate and ultimately control inmates? The answers are both simple and complex. Because we tell the world (and each other) that we are an enlightened nation of laws and not a medieval land of barbarism. Because even our harshest prison isn’t supposed to be the Tower of London.


You probably know ADX better by its stage name, “Supermax,” the forbidding place that houses such criminal luminaries as Terry Nichols, Ramzi Yousef, and Ted Kaczynski as well as hundreds of other, less notable prisoners. When I visited the facility in 2007 as part of a media tour that was carefully choreographed by the Bureau of Prisons, I found the place sterile and soulless. But the hard-ass approach to incarceration was obvious, right down to the tiny circus-like cages where some of the men — one at a time, of course — are permitted to briefly exercise.

Today, Supermax is the most famous prison in America, a worthy if far less visible heir to Alcatraz out in California. When 60 Minutes did a memorable piece on ADX in October 2007, Scott Pelley interviewed one of its former wardens, a man named Robert Hood. Pelley asked Hood why he had been so excited to come to Florence when the job opportunity presented itself. “In our system,” Hood answered, “there’s 144 prisons. And there’s only one Supermax. It’s like the Harvard of the system.”

Read the rest here:

ADX Prison Transfer Didn’t Violate Terrorists’ Due Process Rights

From: FindLaw 10th Circuit Blog
By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 20, 2012

The ADX Florence supermax prison has been described as “the Alcatraz of the Rockies” and “a clean version of Hell.” It’s not surprising that prisoners hope to avoid the secluded facility in Central Colorado. But should transfer to ADX Florence come with due process rights?

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t think so.

Airplane hijacker Omar Rezaq and 1993 World Trade Center bomb conspirators Mohammed Saleh, Ibrahim Elgabrowny, and El-Sayyid Nosair — all of whom are currently incarcerated in the federal prison system — lost an appeal this week regarding their transfer to ADX Florence. The plaintiffs had claimed that they have a liberty interest in avoiding transfer without due process to ADX Florence, where they were formerly housed. The district court disagreed, finding that the plaintiffs lack a cognizable liberty interest in avoiding confinement at ADX.

The plaintiffs were initially assigned to general population units at U.S. penitentiaries. They were each subsequently transferred to the general population unit at ADX Florence between 1997 and 2003. The prisoners claim they did nothing while in custody to warrant increased confinement, and that the government offered no legitimate chance to show that they could return to lower-security prisons. The government said the nature of their crimes made the move necessary, reports The Denver Post. The plaintiffs did not receive hearings before they were transferred to ADX.

In the penological context, not every deprivation of liberty at the hands of prison officials is a constitutional issue because incarcerated persons retain only a “narrow range of protected liberty interests.” A protected liberty interest only arises from a transfer to harsher conditions of confinement when an inmate faces an “atypical and significant hardship … in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”

Read the rest here

Related Resources:

Rezaq v. Nalley (Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals)
Crumbling Prison Doesn’t Qualify as Eighth Amendment Violation (FindLaw’s Tenth Circuit Blog)
No Credit for Time Served, No Problem (FindLaw’s Tenth Circuit Blog)