NATION

U.S. 'supermax' prison: 'Alcatraz of the Rockies' is seen as 'inhuman and degrading'

U.S. prosecutors want Ali Charaf Damache in the worst way.

An Irish resident originally from Algiers, Damache, 50, is accused of using online chat rooms to recruit American women into a would-be terrorist cell operating in this country and Europe.

One man and two women, including Damache's wife, have already been convicted in U.S. courts of providing material support to terrorists. And Damache was captured by Irish authorities in 2010 in Dublin on a separate charge of making a telephone death threat and held without bail.

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But despite requests from U.S. prosecutors to have him extradited to this country for trial in Philadelphia, the High Court of Ireland has refused.

It's not because they want to prosecute him themselves or believe he is innocent. Rather, the Irish court ruled that Damache, if sent to the United States, would probably be locked up in the federal "supermax" prison. And to the court, that amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment.

The court's refusal to extradite Damache highlights the conflicting perspectives on incarceration between the U.S. and Europe. Some European nations see the U.S. prison system as a barbaric anomaly in a country that has often insisted on the protection of human rights around the world.

Even a terrorism convict, the Irish High Court said, should not be subjected to the harsh conditions at the supermax facility in Florence, Colo., with its 24-hour solitary confinement, no family visits and lack of access to the media.

Such a prison, the Irish court said, "amounts to a breach of the constitutional requirement to protect persons from inhuman and degrading treatment and to respect the dignity of the human being."

So on May 21, High Court Justice Aileen Donnelly set Damache free, after he had served his time on the lesser death-threat conviction and faced no additional charges in Ireland.

Opened in 1994, the Colorado supermax prison is the toughest and most controversial correctional facility in the U.S. federal system.

It is dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," and has housed some of the nation's most notorious prisoners, including Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; and Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber. No one has ever escaped.

Food is delivered through a slit in the cell door. Family visits are banned, conversations with others are restricted, and rarely, if ever, do inmates glimpse a tree or a bird through a window. They spend days and nights alone, their feet on concrete, their thoughts to themselves.

It's considered so harsh that in recent years, defense lawyers have increasingly used the specter of the prison fortress to persuade jurors to vote against the death penalty and instead send their clients to supermax. They argue, in effect, that time there would be worse than capital punishment.

In the 2006 capital murder trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the self-described "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks, prison expert James E. Aiken testified that inmates at supermax "rot" away. Moussaoui, he predicted, "will deteriorate." The jury agreed and sentenced Moussaoui to life without parole at supermax.

This May in Boston, defense expert Mark Bezy testified that Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, if spared the death penalty and sent to supermax, would be limited to two 15-minute phone calls with his family each month, and his mail would be screened.

For the victims and their families, he would be forgotten, Bezy testified, calling supermax "a mechanism to cut off an inmate's communications with the outside world."

The jury sentenced Tsarnaev to death anyway. Though he was initially transferred to supermax, he will eventually be moved to federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.

The issue of solitary confinement has been raised in other formats too. President Obama, who last month became the first sitting president to tour a federal prison, wondered whether solitary confinement "makes sense." Last month, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said locking someone away all day and night "exacts a terrible price."

In the Damache extradition effort, U.S. officials argued there was no certainty he would end up in supermax, and they denied allegations of mistreatment. But they said harsh conditions are necessary to ensure that convicts do not continue to run criminal operations from inside prison.

Kenneth Fulton, unit manager at the prison, offered a rare glimpse of supermax when he told the Irish court in legal documents that the prison houses less than one-quarter of 1% of all the federal inmates in the U.S.

Christopher Synsvoll, supervisory attorney at the penitentiary, said that as of August 2014, 407 inmates were kept there — out of the total 207,504 in the federal system.

Jennifer A. Williams, lead assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia in the Damache extradition effort, is coordinating with Justice Department officials in Washington to challenge the Irish ruling. "We are exploring the possibility of an appeal," said spokeswoman Patricia Hartman.

In her 333-page decision, the Irish justice said there "is compelling evidence" the Colorado prison is inhumane, citing affidavits from human rights groups and other records.

"I am satisfied," Donnelly said, "that prolonged exposure to involuntary solitary confinement exacts a significant physiological toll, is damaging to the integrity of the mind and personality, and is damaging to the bodily integrity of the person."

She further noted that Damache already had completed a three-year prison sentence in 2013 in Dublin for the separate Irish charge. He was held until the U.S. extradition request was adjudicated.

Damache was indicted in Philadelphia in 2011 along with the three others on charges of plotting to assassinate a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the prophet Muhammad as a dog.

The others all pleaded guilty and were sentenced last year. Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a Pakistani native, was 15 years old and living in Maryland when he was recruited into Damache's plot. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, whom Damache married, was given eight years; and Colleen R. LaRose, dubbed "Jihad Jane" in the media, received 10 years.

At her sentencing, LaRose still spoke highly of the thin, bearded Damache. "I had so much respect for him," she told the court. "He was so brave."

As head of the cell, Damache allegedly recruited others online to wage jihad and created separate teams to plan, research, recruit and finance terrorist operations.

Damache apparently believed that American women would draw less attention from security officials. The indictment said he emailed LaRose of his desire to die a martyr's death, writing that "i tried twice but I wasn't successful…[but]…I will…try until Allah will make it easy for me."

Upon his release from jail in Dublin in May, his tone was strikingly different.

"I always had faith in the Irish legal system," he said in a statement issued by his lawyers. "After more than five years in jail, I am looking forward to moving on with my life here."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT

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