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Maybe Death IS Better

Christopher Zoukis
Contributing Writer

There are no more windows to stare out wistfully.



A fate worse than death?

Jodi Arias

In June, 2008, Travis Alexander was murdered in Mesa, Arizona. His injuries consisted of multiple stab wounds, a slit throat, and a gunshot to the head. Jodi Arias, Alexander's ex-girlfriend, was convicted of first-degree murder in May 2013. Both the murder and trial have received widespread media attention, at the circus level. | Photo: Associated Press | Jodi Arias, Travis Alexander, Murder, Killing, Trial, Media, Circus,

A fate worse than death?

Christopher Zoukis
Contributing Writer

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[Comments] Shortly after her conviction on a capital murder charge for killing her lover, TruTV obsession Jodi Arias released a statement in which she said she'd rather die now than face a long stretch of imprisonment, probably for life. She's 32 years old. In today's climate of prisoner warehousing, control units and barely existent medical care, one can't blame her.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, might feel the same way. He is presently at a federal prison hospital, and when he reaches a basic level of recovery from his injuries incurred from his capture, Tsarnaev ' 19 years old ' likely faces isolated confinement for the rest of his life. The boxcar-like existence might only last for a decade or two if he is sentenced to death. Yet, if he is "lucky" enough to receive a life sentence of imprisonment as his punishment, Tsarnaev could spend as much as fifty (50!) years or so in such conditions. A mind-boggling prospect, to say the least.

Prison is no bargain in the best of circumstances, but anyone who has spent even a few months in a control unit, or even a more basic Special Housing Unit ("SHU," or "the Hole"), can probably understand the despair Arias or Tsarnaev must be experiencing right now. Around-the-clock lockdown, with maybe a few one-hour "recreation" sessions in an "outdoor" dog-run enclosure each week, the only sunlight available in such an existence.

There are no more windows to stare out wistfully. Today's control units are designed to minimize ' extinguish ' any outside stimulation. Especially human contact. For Tsarnaev, whatever life he has left on this planet, his existence within the Federal Bureau of Prisons will likely be limited to a concrete rectangle at the Bureau's Administrative Detention Facility in Florence, Colorado, the notorious ADX prison. The Unabomber is there. So are a number of Islamist terrorists convicted in U.S. Courts, and other high-profile criminals, including mob bosses and gang leaders. ADX is an odd hodgepodge of miscreants, without a doubt. And some of them need to be locked away from others ' even their fellow prisoners. According to federal regulations, the BOP has ADX and other "control units" for "those inmates being a threat to others or to the orderly operation of the institution." 258 C.F.R. ? 541.40.

Yet, there is a growing chorus of observers who assert that enforcement in control units amounts to torture. Naturally, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights organizations have been at the fore, but even the United Nations has stepped into the fray. In a December 2012 meeting in Buenos Aires, the United Nations Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting discussed further developing the existing Standard Minimum Rules ("SMRs") for the treatment of prisoners. The existing SMRs, and the proposed changes to them, were examined by this group, which included delegates from the United States, will have great influence on the U.N.'s Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which meets in 2014 to officially adopt revisions to the existing SMRs for international use.

Given the size of the American prison industry, it should come as no surprise that the United States objected to several proposed SMR revisions, one of them addressing caps on the duration of isolated confinement. Given America's powerful voice in such matters, the Expert Group declined to make recommendations as to such confinement. Instead, in the end, it rather meekly noted it had "discussed" the issue, a large step back from the position taken during the actual discussions. As the Supreme Court has approved Supermax confinement as recently as 2005, see Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209, 221 (2005), the control units and isolated confinement that many say amount to torture appears to be here to stay. At least for the foreseeable future. Indeed, within the last few years the Federal Bureau of Prisons has greatly expanded its use of control units and "special management units," converting several entire prisons for lockdown use.

Given Mr. Tsarnaev's notoriety, it seems likely that these facts add up to a miserable future for him, and probably for Ms. Arias, too. No matter how long they may live, both appear destined for isolated confinement for the remainder of their days. Is that a fate worse than death? Fortunately, most of us will never have to face such a question. But for those who have endured extensive confinement under those circumstances, the answer could go either way. Perhaps it's time we, as a nation, take a hard look at how we treat our prisoners. As we claim to stand as the model of enlightened governance, the word torture should never even enter the conversation.


Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, Contributing Writer: Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), a comprehensive guide to prison education. Mr. Zoukis blogs at here and here. He's a PEN American Center award winning writer, legal commentator, and American Bar Association member (Criminal Justice Section/Section of Litigation). See... (more...)