WASHINGTON — Ramzi Yousef, inmate No. 03911 at a federal “supermax” penitentiary, is serving life with no parole plus 240 years in a 7-by-11-foot cell with no bars and one small high window, far from other inmates, prison staff and the world beyond the fortress deep in the Colorado Rockies.
He has been there for 15 years, in nearly 24-hour solitary confinement at the prison they call the “Fortress in the Rockies.” Even his meals provide little relief, with the food trays shoved by unseen guards through a sally port between two steel doors. The only other inmate within shouting range has killed others in prison.
Yousef, now 44, knows he will never go free. An avowed terrorist convicted in the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, he killed six people and injured more than 1,000. But in a lawsuit, he is trying to persuade a federal judge to at least release him from solitary confinement. The judge is expected to rule soon whether the suit will go to trial.
Despite his good behavior, Yousef says, he is being kept isolated because he is a convicted terrorist, something he can never change — and that, he argues, is a violation of his due process of law.
“I request an immediate end to my solitary confinement and ask to be in a unit in an open prison environment where inmates are allowed outside their cells for no less than 14 hours a day,” he wrote the warden, according to confidential government records obtained by The Times. “I have been in solitary confinement in the U.S. since Feb. 8, 1995, with no end in sight.... I further ask not to be in handcuffs or leg irons when moved outside my cell.”
The suit says that long-term solitary confinement leaves him “no hope or prospect of any remedial condition” and that it has led to “severe psychological trauma.” His lawyer, Bernard V. Kleinman, said in an interview that Yousef already “demonstrates a degree of paranoia and a degree of fear that would not be normal or expected if he was in the general population or had more contact with other inmates.”
The prison warden maintains that Yousef is still a serious security threat, but some outside experts agree with Yousef that his treatment is unconstitutional.
Colin Dayan, a humanities professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied solitary confinement in Arizona, said many prison administrations use isolation without regard to psychological damage to inmates.
“You no longer know what’s real,” she said. “You can’t speak to anyone; you can’t touch anyone: your senses no longer have any outlet. You have delusions and become psychotic. Your mind deteriorates.”
The newly obtained documents show just how brazen Yousef was after he was captured in 1995, and why officials have long been concerned about his potential for still more damage.
“Ramzi Yousef is a cold-blooded killer, completely devoid of conscience,” said U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy of New York, in an unusual memo last October in which he agreed the Yousef lawsuit should be heard in Denver rather than New York, the site of the bombing.
He noted that Yousef’s uncle is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind. “Yousef was close to his relative KSM both in blood and in mental desire to wreak havoc on civilized society,” the judge said.
Duffy added that during his trial, Yousef “was collecting urea in his cell, a main ingredient in the WTC bomb,” and “also attempted to obtain the particular type of cheap wristwatch that had been used as the timing device” in bombs intended for airplanes.
In addition to the trade center blast, which he masterminded after slipping into the country from Pakistan a month earlier, he was also convicted of trying to kill Pope John Paul II and President Clinton and trying to bomb 11 airliners on their way from Asia to the U.S. His plots were financed by Al Qaeda and his uncle, allegedly the person behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Yes, I am a terrorist, and proud of it,” Yousef told Duffy at his January 1998 sentencing. “You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.”
Duffy has also refused to approve $23,225 in legal fees for Kleinman, who told the appellate court that the judge was trying to “tar me, somehow, with my client’s actions and those of his relatives.”
Warden David Berkebile wrote to Yousef in November, in response to his requests to get out of solitary: “You are a violent jihadist, committed to waging war on the United States, with a strong following of supporters and admirers. There is substantial risk that your communications or contacts could result in death or serious bodily injury to others.”
Flying back to New York after he was arrested in Pakistan, Yousef had boasted to FBI agents about his bomb-making skills and, according to a 21-page FBI memo, said he was motivated to kill because of U.S. aid to Israel.
“His desire,” the agents wrote, was “to topple one tower into the other, and cause a total of 250,000 civilian deaths.”
Yousef said he expected the death penalty, but instead received life.