The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as ADX, in Florence, Colo., is the highest security prison in the country, housing inmates the federal government has deemed to be the worst of the worst. All of its approximately 400 prisoners live in long-term solitary confinement. But one section of ADX, known as the H Unit, houses about a dozen inmates under even more isolated conditions known as “special administrative measures,” or SAMs. Several prisoners in H Unit have protested their restricted living conditions through hunger strikes. The federal Bureau of Prisons has responded by force-feeding them — often by inserting a tube into a nostril down the throat, into the stomach — a practice critics say violates medical ethics. The BOP and the U.S. Justice Department repeatedly have refused to comment about the technique and SAMs conditions more generally. Aviva Stahl, a Brooklyn-based criminal justice reporter spent 18 months in partnership with Type Investigations researching thousands of incidents of force-feeding at ADX. The Independent’s Susan Greene spoke with her about her findings, which were published earlier this month in The Nation magazine.
Greene: ADX’s H Unit has been described by some former inmates as the most isolated place on the planet. Reporting on what happens there is a challenge. What led you to take it on?
Stahl: I’d been reporting on prison conditions for a couple years, including many cases about conditions faced by terrorists. There had been a lot of reporting on hunger strikers and force-feeding at Guantanamo Bay, but almost nothing about this happening on U.S. soil in our federal prison system. It interested me because it’s usually the hunger strikers’ goal to bring enough media and public attention to their grievances to pressure prisons to improve their conditions. But at ADX, these strikers live in a black box, unable to communicate with the media. So, with all that secrecy around this issue, I thought it needed some scrutiny.
Greene: How were you able to gain access to these prisoners?
Stahl: I communicated with about five or six inmates who had spent time on H unit but since have been moved to other facilities. Most of the interviewing was done by letters, snail mail. But one inmate – Mohammad Salameh, the man I focus on mainly in the article – was able to speak with me by phone over a period of time from USP (United States Penitentiary) Florence (not far from ADX) where he was moved.
Greene: All of the men you interviewed are convicted terrorists and all of them are Muslim?
Stahl: Yes, and yes. Mr. Salameh is from Jordan and was convicted for his involvement in the (1993) World Trade Center attack. He served time in several high-security prisons without being subject to communications restrictions. But by 2002, after 9/11, the (Department of Justice) changed the rules toward harsher restrictions and less oversight. Mr. Salameh and a number of other men convicted of terrorism offenses were moved to ADX. And the number of prisoners put under SAMs began to multiply from 16 in November 2001 to 30 in 2009 to 51 in June 2017. Most of them, by far, are Muslim.
Greene: What led Mr. Salameh to hunger strike?
Stahl: Under SAMs, he was completely cut off from the world. He could make only one phone call a month and send one only three-page, double-sided letter each week. Everything he did was monitored. He was barred from TV and radio news, and reading material had to be individually approved. He wrote hundreds of complaints, but they were blocked. It’s like being buried alive. He had such a strong belief that what was being done to him was unjust. He had a sense of desperation to get word out about these living conditions. And, like with other prisoners, he felt that his body was his last resort, his only way to protest – by refusing to eat.
Greene: How do he and others describe force-feeding?
Stahl: I think for all of them it’s painful and uncomfortable and dehumanizing.
Mr.Salameh was force-fed nearly 200 times during his 11 years under SAMs. He describes being strapped to a chair for feedings that were extraordinarily painful and could last for hours. One of the most brutal involved 16 cartons of supplement – it’s (a liquid meal) called Novasource, like the equivalent of Ensure – which he repeatedly vomited. He compared himself to a lion, saying, “The Lion doesn’t want to be fed.” When I asked him about what he meant by that, he said he was going to find ways to resist what they were doing to him.
Greene: Your story seems to accept the premise that force-feeding amounts to torture. But why is it not considered saving a life of someone trying to kill himself through starvation? Why is force-feeding different than corrections officers cutting down a prisoner who has tried to hang himself with his bed sheets?
Stahl: If somebody decides to hang himself, they’re not putting a platform of demands before the prison. But hunger strikers do. It’s not that they want to die or are suicidal. It’s just that they’re willing to put their bodies on the line as a way to achieve a political objective. Under conditions like SAMs, it’s one of the few options available to them to say their restrictions are unbearable. Hunger strikers understand the risks they’re taking in making that decision. By breaking their hunger strike, by force-feeding them, the doctor or medical practitioner is acting as an arm of the prison and in the service of prison discipline, which is against medical ethics and a violation of inmates’ bodily autonomy. Yes, doctors are supposed to save people’s lives, but not to the extent that they violate people’s bodies against their wishes.
Greene: Mr. Salameh is the only inmate whose name you cite in your Nation article. Why?
Stahl: The others were fearful of doing anything that puts them at risk of being put back at ADX or under SAMs. And they’re not willing to take that risk by speaking out about force-feeding. Mr. Salameh went back and forth on the question of whether to let me use his name, but decided to do so because he felt that speaking out, telling the story of his force-feeding might help conditions. He has accepted that he will never live in the free world again and that he will die in prison. But he will not accept conditions that are so extremely isolated and inhumane.
Greene: The World Trade Center attack that Mr. Salameh was involved in killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Why should readers care about him?
Stahl: Any time we discount one person’s human rights, it puts everybody’s human rights at risk. We’re all safer when everybody’s human rights are guaranteed. None of this is to say that what happened in (1993) wasn’t horrible. But I think it’s dangerous to define people by their worst or least ethical moments. I think lots of us have complexity to us and it’s important to honor that complexity.
Greene: What do you want Coloradans in particular to know about what’s happening inside ADX?
Stahl: I think they should think about how this prison, this complex they can literally drive by is so cut off from the outside world that torture is taking place there with no scrutiny. And I think they should consider that what makes these SAMs restrictions possible is that there are people who work at ADX, including people who are medical personnel and willing to carry force-feeding out against prisoners’ wills in ways that amount to torture.