Tuesday, April 10, 2012

American "Supermax" Prisons and the European Court of Human Rights

    It is not often that we are aware of an overseas appellate ruling, but today's decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Case of Babar Ahmad and Others v. The United Kingdom is worth some attention.
    In the ruling, the court, which sits in Strasbourg, France, holds there will be no violation of human rights if five individuals are extradited by England to the United States to stand trial on charges of being involved in terrorism. The charges are made in a federal indictment in Connecticut, and two indictments in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. One of the New York indictments alleges various degrees of involvement in the 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salamm in East Africa.
    The first matter of note is the structure of the court's opinion: the decision is set forth in a series of 258 numbered paragraphs and will, therefore, look to an American reader as a litigant's pleading, and not the decision of an appellate court. 
    The second matter of considerable interest is the court's extensive discussion of the federal "supermax" prison in Colorado where the five defendants can expect to be incarcerated if they are convicted after trial in federal court. 
    The defendants maintained that the nature of the incarceration in a supermax prison--in particular, the isolation from contact with other humans--would be a violation of their human rights. The court rejects the claims, and in doing so sets forth in great detail how a supermax prison is run. The court cites extensively to American case law interpreting the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment, and to the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The court also shows its familiarity with federal court decisions which have addressed conditions in a supermax prison.
    American supermax prisons have been the source of some controversy, and there is much misinformation about them. This opinion offers an excellent description of them, from the size of the cells, to recreation time, to contact with other inmates. There have been some differences among the Justices of the United States Supreme Court over to what extent, if any, American courts should rely on the opinions of the courts of others nations in constitutional adjudication. Regardless of these differences, I expect that future American litigation regarding supermax prisons will cite this decision of the European Court of Human Rights. The decision can be found here.    

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