The following was originally published as part of The Dissenter newsletter.
The mass incarceration system in the United States is cruel and inhumane, and as a result, the U.S. government had their extradition request against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denied by a British district judge.
As Judge Vanessa Baraitser declared [PDF], “The detention conditions in which Mr. Assange is likely to be held are relevant to Mr. Assange’s risk of suicide.”
She additionally found there was “a real risk” that Assange would be subject to “restrict special administrative measures” or SAMs if confined in a U.S. prison.
Even more specifically, Baraitser determined Assange would be designated to ADX Florence in Colorado, a supermax facility notorious for its conditions and how their effects on mentally ill prisoners.
“I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” Baraitser concluded, after noting he was diagnosed with a recurring depressive disorder and autism spectrum disorder.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) was involved in producing a report in 2017 called “The Darkest Corner.” It was referenced by the judge and outlined the conditions prisoners face at ADX Florence if designated for SAMs.
…[P]risoners are generally allowed a total of 10 hours outside their cell per week; however this time is spent alone in a small indoor room or a cage hardly bigger than their cell; inmates are forbidden from communicating with other prisoners, for example, by yelling though the walls; communications with people outside the prison are usually restricted to their lawyers and a few immediate family members who must be cleared by the US government; SAMs typically restricts prisoners to writing one letter per week to a single family member and this may not exceed three double-sided sheets of paper, forwarded to FBI agents for approval; over time, the delays in receiving mail can degrade the quality of communication between a prisoner and his family to the point where it can feel worthless; phone calls are severely restricted and contemporaneously monitored; during non-legal in-person visits no physical contact is allowed, with conversations taking place thorough a thick glass barrier and prisoners shackled and chained at their wrists, ankles and to the ground; 14-days advance notice is required for visits, and these can take months to coordinate because SAMs prisoners cannot use a visiting room when any other prisoner is present.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg, whose defense of the allegations were relied upon heavily by the Crown Prosecution Service, did not offer any assurances that Assange would not be placed under SAMs before or after trial.
As Baraitser acknowledged, “This case was opened on the basis that it related to one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the U.S. The views of the intelligence community are articulated by Mike Pompeo, then head of the CIA, in a speech on April 13, 2017. He described Wikileaks as a ‘hostile non-state intelligence service.’ He told the audience that Russian military intelligence had used Wikileaks to release data it had obtained through cyber operations against the Democratic National Committee and that Russia’s primary propaganda outlet had actively collaborated with Wikileaks.”
“He stated that Mr. Assange ‘and his ilk’ make common cause with dictators and that “Wikileaks will take down America any way they can.’ He told the audience “we have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now.'”
“I have rejected the defense submission that this hostility translated into improper pressure on federal prosecutors to bring charges,” Baraitser stated. “However, it does demonstrate that as recently as 2017, Mr. Assange and Wikileaks were viewed by the intelligence community as an ongoing threat to national security.”
The spying operation conducted against Assange represented a “high level of concern by the U.S. authorities regarding Mr. Assange’s ongoing activities.” To the judge, this was evidence he would be put in extraordinarily restrictive jail or prison conditions that would impact his health and potentially drive him to commit suicide.
Maureen Baird, a former warden for the federal Bureau of Prisons, testified as a defense witness, and Baraitser referred to her summary of conditions she recalled from her time overseeing the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York.
Inmates were in solitary confinement, technically, for 24-hours per day. There was absolutely no communication, by any means, with other inmates. The only form of human interaction they encountered was when correctional officers opened the viewing slot during their inspection rounds of the unit, when institution staff walked through the unit during their required weekly rounds, or when meals were delivered through the secure meal slot in the door. One-hour recreation was offered to inmates in this unit each day; however, in my experience, oftentimes an inmate would decline this opportunity because it was much of the same as their current situation. The recreation area, in the unit, consisted of a small barren indoor cell, absent any exercise equipment.
CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months at a federal correctional institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, after pleading guilty in a leak prosecution. He has spent the last five years following federal prison issues closely.
“There is a precedent for British courts not sending prisoners back to the United States, and it’s specifically because of the way the U.S. uses solitary confinement. The UN considers the U.S. practice of solitary to be a form of torture. The British courts have held that it is a form of torture, and if somebody is fragile, it’s very, very easy to commit suicide in prisons,” Kiriakou commented.
Jeffrey Sterling, another CIA whistleblower who was sentenced to prison after a leak prosecution, said he found it interesting that the judge thought a U.S. prison was “the most dangerous thing Assange [would] face if extradited.”
“She is correct in her assessment of the harsh conditions in U.S. prisons, but she fails to explain how that aspect is wholly separate from the overall system that Assange would be subject to. One cannot and should not be separated from the other. If he cannot be treated justly in prison, he will not be treated justly in the U.S. courts,” Sterling added.
Sterling sounded an alarm. “What Baraitser has actually done is legitimize the U.S. effort to use the Espionage Act to reach any dissenting opinion anywhere. The danger to press freedom and whistleblowers worldwide remains, and the threat has in fact been increased.”
“If the aspect of mental health is not a factor in any future efforts, there apparently will be nothing to stop the U.S.”
This is what made the decision bittersweet for press freedom organizations, advocates, and supporters, who have opposed Assange’s extradition.
It is worth mentioning some further examples of inhumanity that were referenced by the judge.
According to a report from the Corrections Information Council that described conditions at ADX Florence in April 2017, psychological services were limited to “self-help packets and information provided by video.” Only five individual therapy slots were available and participants in group therapy were kept in “individual cages and remained shackled.”
“It expressed concern that those self-harming or who have attempted suicide were describe d by staff as ‘just getting attention many times’ and that ‘inmates who are disciplined are less likely to commit self-harm again.’ It noted that rates of documented instances of inmates ‘threatening bodily harm’ was 8.7/100 compared to the overall BOP rate of 0.9/100.”
Baraitser also highlighted:
The report documents one inmate reporting that he suffered from depression and bipolar disorders but who was taken off medication in January 2017 following which he attempted suicide and, by April 2017, he had yet to receive any medication. It documents another inmate being taken off psychotropic medication following his attempted suicide by swallowing pills. At the time of the inspection one inmate was on suicide watch. Staff reported that the facility had two or three suicide attempts in the past year and the last completed suicide was on December December 25, 2015…
A series published by The Atlantic in 2012 called attention to the horror that unfolds daily. “Prisoners interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass, and other dangerous objects.”
On May 5, 2019, “during a routine search of the cell solely occupied by Mr. Assange, inside a cupboard and concealed under some underwear, a prison officer found ‘half of a razor blade,'” the judge wrote.
The decision is ominous for journalists, who engage in the same newsgathering practices that the Justice Department criminalized through the Espionage Act and computer crime charges brought against Assange.
At the same time, it is rather clear that a life was saved. If Assange were incarcerated in a federal prison, it would be a death sentence.