The London court ruling that Julian Assange cannot be extradited because of the danger to his mental health and the threat of suicide is well supported by the grim record of US Supermax prisons, according to experts on the penal system.
But civil liberty advocates said the ruling did nothing to deflect the threat posed by Assange’s prosecution to investigative journalism around the world.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser concluded that if the WikiLeaks co-founder had been extradited and convicted he would almost certainly have been sent to a federal maximum security, or Supermax prison – most likely to the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, known as ADX.
ADX is where high-profile prisoners like the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Sinaloa Cartel chief Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Atlanta Olympics bomber, Eric Rudolph, and the British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid are held.
Inmates spend 23 hours a day in an 8 x 12 ft cell, in which all the furnishings are made of concrete.
“At the ADX, you can’t see nothing, not a highway out in the distance, not the sky. You know the minute you get there you won’t see any of that, not for years and years,” a former prisoner, Travis Dusenberry told the Marshall Project, a nonprofit media group focusing on the US criminal justice system.
“It’s just the harshest place you’ve ever seen. Nothing living, not so much as a blade of grass anywhere.”
There is one hour of recreation a day, alone in a cage a little bigger than the cells.
Inmates still find ways of communicating, by “kites” – written notes tied to lengths of string.
As a prisoner likely to be under special administrative measures and suicide watch, Assange would almost certainly not even have been able to make such tenuous efforts at human contact.
“The worldwide consensus across countries over decades, is that, particularly for people who have pre-existing mental health conditions, solitary confinement will have a grave impact on them,” Laura Rovner, professor at the University of Denver College of Law, said.
“The risk of suicide for people with serious mental health issues is considerably higher than it is people without those issues. Although certainly even people without mental health issues are also gravely harmed by solitary confinement.”
The UN has deemed prolonged solitary confinement a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela rules, setting minimum standards for incarceration, say it should not be used for more than 15 days, and never for inmates with mental or physical disability or illness.
Experts said Baraitser also had evidence to support her finding that Assange could not be prevented from taking his own life indefinitely if he were determined to do so.
There have been eight reported suicides at ADX since it opened in 1994, and many more have mutilated themselves in suicide attempts that included swallowing razor blades and cutting themselves with glass, according to a lawsuit in 2016.
The rate at which ADX inmates threaten bodily harm was 10 times the US prison average according to a 2018 report.
As a result of the 2016 lawsuit, the US Bureau of Prisons paid a $175,000 settlement to the family of a prisoner, Robert Knott, who hanged himself at ADX after being left to “languish in solitary confinement” for more than a decade without adequate mental health treatment.
The fact that Assange’s extradition was denied on mental health grounds means that the US justice department attempt to prosecute him under the Espionage Act has not been put to the test. Baraitser’s ruling upheld the prosecution’s main arguments.
In its reaction, the US justice department said it was “gratified that the US prevailed on every point of law raised”. The statement added: “In particular, the court rejected all of Mr Assange’s arguments regarding political motivation, political offense, fair trial, and freedom of speech.”
Freedom of the press advocates fear that Baraitser’s ruling may have enhanced the chilling effect of the US legal pursuit of Assange.
“National security investigative journalism in the crosshairs. The job of an investigative journalist is to publish government secrets,” Ben Wizner, the director of the speech, privacy and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
“I think what hasn’t gotten enough attention is this idea that the US secrecy laws can bind foreign journalists and publishers,” Wizner added. “That’s a very, very dangerous precedent. I hope that this court’s decision on the charges doesn’t become the decision that people look to in future cases.”