Those outraged because Zacarias Moussaoui got off easy with a life sentence can take comfort that he faces a fate worse than death. Dan Eggan writes in today’s Washington Post about the Administrative Maximum United States Penitentiary, or Admax, in Florence, Colorado:
Dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” by prison experts — and “The Tombs” by many prisoners and their lawyers — the 12-year-old “supermax” facility houses about 400 of the most dangerous and infamous prisoners in the federal system, from “Unabomber” Theodore J. Kaczynski to Ramzi Yousef, architect of the 1993 World Trade center bombing. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons transferred most, if not all, of its terrorism-related inmates to the prison.
But Moussaoui is unlikely to meet, or even glimpse, Yousef or any other fellow jihadists at the Florence facility anytime soon, according to federal officials, lawyers and others familiar with operations there.
In the most tightly monitored part of the facility, known as the “control unit,” inmates are kept in segregation at all times — living, sleeping and eating in individual cells poured from concrete that measure approximately 7 feet by 11 feet. They are designed to ensure that inmates cannot speak to or make eye contact with each other, according to defense lawyers, human rights advocates and others who have had access to the facility. Some prisoners are monitored 24 hours a day by surveillance cameras in their cells, as Moussaoui has been during his years in the Alexandria jail. …
… Some inmates are allowed a handful of visitors and phone calls each month, but many of those incarcerated for terrorism-related crimes have no visitors other than their attorneys and the guards who shackle them whenever they are removed from their cells, according to defense attorneys and court testimony.
Ramzi Yousef, for example, often spends days at a time not leaving his cell, because using his daily one-hour exercise time requires submitting to body cavity searches. The only person allowed to visit him is his lawyer, whose offices and practice are in New York.
Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian adds the detail that “Religious services of numerous denominations are piped in from a small chapel.”
I keep thinking of a calf confined in a veal crate. They usually go mad.
Richard Serrano at the Los Angeles Times says that prisoners at Admax experience a slow rot.
They exist alone in soundproof cells as small as 7 feet by 12 feet, with a concrete-poured desk, bed and stool, a small shower and sink, and a TV that offers religious and anger-management programs.
They are locked down 23 hours a day.
Larry Homenick, a former U.S. marshal who has taken prisoners to Supermax, said that there was a small triangular recreation area, known as “the dog run,” where solitary Supermax prisoners could occasionally get a glimpse of sky.
He said it was chilling to walk down the cellblocks and glance through the plexiglass “sally port” chambers into the cells and see the faces inside.
Life there is harsh. Food is delivered through a slit in the cell door. Prisoners don’t leave their cells to see a lawyer, a doctor or a prison official; those visitors must go to the cell.
Prison expert James E. Aiken told the jury what Moussaoui’s life would be like at Admax.
In his trial testimony, Aiken said the whole point of Supermax was not just punishment, but “incapacitation.”
There is no pretense that the prison is preparing the inmate for a return to society. Like the cellmate of the count of Monte Cristo who died an old, tired convict, Aiken said, “Moussaoui will deteriorate.” …
… Christopher Boyce, a convicted spy who was incarcerated at Supermax, left the prison about 100 miles south of Denver with no regret. “You’re slowly hung,” he once told The Times. “You’re ground down. You can barely keep your sanity.” …
… Ron Kuby, another New York defense lawyer, has handled several East Coast “revolutionaries” who went on a killing spree, and a radical fundamentalist who killed a rabbi in 1990. All were brought to Supermax.
He thought Aiken’s description that prisoners rot inside its walls was too kind.
“It’s beyond rotting,” he said. “Rotting at least implies a slow, gradual disintegration.”
He said there were a lot of prisons where inmates rot, where the staff “plants you in front of your TV in your cell and you just grow there like a mushroom.”
“But Supermax is worse,” he said. “It’s not just the hothouse for the mushrooms. It’s designed in the end to break you down.”
I’ll leave it to others to decide if this is justice. I’m more concerned about what David Cole says in today’s WaPo. Cole calls Moussaoui’s prosecution an “object lesson in how the government’s overreaching has undermined our security.”
Four years ago Moussaoui was on the verge of pleading guilty to offenses that would have resulted in a life sentence. But he was unwilling to accept the government’s insistence that he admit to being the 20th hijacker of Sept. 11, 2001 — an allegation the government has long since dropped.
For almost two years, the case was stalled as the government sought Moussaoui’s execution while denying him access to witnesses in its control who had testimony establishing that he was not involved in the Sept. 11 plot at all. Due process has long required the government to turn over such “exculpatory” evidence, but the government, citing national security, refused to afford Moussaoui access to this evidence. In October 2003 the trial court offered a reasonable solution: Allow the trial to proceed but eliminate the death penalty, because that’s what the government’s exculpatory evidence related to. The government refused that solution and spent several more years trying Moussaoui. The case ended where it began — with Moussaoui facing life in prison.
Your tax dollars at work.
Meanwhile, at a secret CIA “black site” prison, the United States is holding the alleged mastermind of Sept. 11, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. And at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it has Mohamed al-Qahtani, who the government now claims is the real would-be 20th hijacker. But the administration can’t try either of these men, because any such proceeding would turn into a trial of the United States’ own tactics in the war on terrorism. The CIA has reportedly water-boarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed — a practice in which the suspect is made to fear that he is drowning in order to encourage him to talk. And Army logs report that interrogators threatened Qahtani with dogs, made him strip naked and wear women’s underwear, put him on a leash and made him bark like a dog, injected him with intravenous fluids and barred him from the bathroom so that he urinated on himself. With these shortsighted and inhumane tactics, the administration essentially immunized the real culprits, so it was left seeking the execution of a man who was not involved in Sept. 11.
As a PR tactic it seems to have worked pretty well with Bush’s Bitter Ender base, who don’t seem to have noticed that Moussaoui was a bit player, if that, in the 9/11 atrocity. They enjoyed a two-day virtual rampage over the verdict. You’d have thought Moussaoui was Osama bin Laden’s best bud and piloted one of the hijacked planes himself. I’m sure they’d still be at it except for the allegations that Patrick Kennedy was caught driving drunk and got special treatment from DC cops. No rightie will pass up an opportunity to wallow in the depravity of the Kennedys; they dropped Moussaoui and went after ol’ Patrick like hounds catching scent of a raccoon.
(I know hounds chase foxes in civilized places, but it’s raccoons where I come from.)
The Moussaoui case is emblematic of the administration’s approach to fighting terrorism. It has repeatedly overreached and sought symbolic victories, adopting tactics that have undermined its ability to achieve real security while disregarding less flashy but more effective means of protecting us. In the early days after Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft sought to reassure us with repeated announcements of the detention of large numbers of “terror suspects” — ultimately the government admitted to detaining 5,000 foreign nationals in the first two years after Sept. 11. Yet to this day not one of them stands convicted of a terrorist offense. Similarly, the administration launched a nationwide ethnic profiling campaign, calling in 8,000 young men for FBI interviews and 80,000 more for registration, fingerprinting and photographing by immigration authorities, simply because they came from Arab and Muslim countries. Not one of those 88,000 has been convicted of terrorism.
Come to think of it, some good ol’, coon dogs might do a better job.
Cole goes on to note that only 8 percent of the Guantanamo detainees are even accused of being fighters for al Qaeda. “The majority are not accused of engaging in any hostile acts against the United States.” Jose Padilla was stripped of his rights as a citizen and held in military custody for being “a marginal player in a hazy conspiracy to support terrorism. His indictment cites no terrorist acts or terrorist groups that were actually supported.”
While the government rounded up Arabs and Muslims with no ties to terrorism and authorized torture and disappearances, several of its highest-profile cases fell short, and it failed to carry out the more mundane work that might actually make us safer. In December the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission gave the administration a disastrous report card on its progress in implementing a series of practical security recommendations — such as better screening of cargo on airlines and containers coming into ports, securing of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union to keep them out of terrorists’ hands, and protection of vulnerable targets such as chemical plants.
Tough talk in news conferences, overheated charges that evaporate under scrutiny and executions for symbolic purposes will not make us safer. The administration needs to turn away from symbolism and toward substance if it is to have any hope of protecting us from the next attack.
One of the many peculiarities of righties is that for them, symbolism is as good as substance. For them, image is character and rhetoric is accomplishment. Boasting is victory. Ideology is the only reality. Truly, the Bushies could just snatch random Muslims off the streets (which of course they’ve alrady done) and hang them publicly without evidence or trial, and a large part of the righties would accept this without question. They’d probably find a way to defend it as a bold antiterrorist initiative.
Finally, from the site Homeland Security Watch, we find a list of the people in U.S. custody that played a much larger role than Moussaoui in the 9/11 attacks. They are:
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of the plot;
Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, a member of the Hamburg cell and the key facilitator of the plot;
Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a financier of the 9/11 attacks;
Ammar al-Baluchi, a travel and financial facilitator for the plot;
Walid Muhammad Salih Bin al-Attash, a key deputy to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed;
Mohammed Manea Ahmad al-Qahtani, the real â€œtwentieth hijackerâ€ whose entry into the United States was denied at Orlando airport.
Strangely, the Bitter Enders seem unconcerned about prosecuting these guys. It seems they’re too busy blogswarming Patrick Kennedy. Gotta keep those priorities straight.