The closest ally of the U.S. recognizes that the American prison system is crude and oppressive for inmates with mental health issues.
A British appeals court on Monday rejected demands from the U.S. government for the extradition of an accused British hacker, Lauri Love, citing the inability of U.S. prisons to humanely and adequately treat his medical and mental health ailments. Extradition to the U.S., the court ruled, would be “oppressive by reason of his physical and mental condition.”
Rejecting the prosecutor’s pleas that “the British courts should trust the United States to provide what it said it would provide” in order to secure Love’s health and safety, the court instead invoked extensive medical and psychological testimony that conditions inside American prisons are woefully inadequate to treat Love’s ailments. As a result, extradition and incarceration inside the U.S. prison system would exacerbate those health issues and produce a high risk of suicide.
Love, 33, is accused by the U.S. government of participating in the 2012 and 2013 hacking of the computer systems of various U.S. military agencies and private companies. The U.S. Justice Department, citing a confidential FBI source who claimed to have accessed chat rooms in which Love plotted with others on how to use the stolen data, indicted Love in three different states (New Jersey, New York, and Virginia) on felony hacking and theft charges. Love (pictured above after Monday’s victory) was arrested in 2013 by British authorities and released on bail. Ever since, the U.S. government has sought his extradition from the U.K. for him to stand trial, and ultimately be imprisoned, in the U.S.
In September 2016, a British lower court judge ruled that Love was eligible for extradition, and two months later, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd ignored the pleas of 100 members of Parliament to keep Love in the U.K. and instead ordered him extradited to the U.S. In ruling Love eligible for extradition, the lower court judge rejected claims that extradition would severely worsen Love’s physical and mental health problems, accepting promises from U.S. prison officials that they would ensure Love did not kill himself.
Specifically, prison officials told the court that, on the trip to the U.S., Love “would be restrained and escorted by Marshals, who would observe him within close proximity during the flight, having checked him for anything he might be able to use to harm himself,” and that once in prison, he would be kept in isolation if suicide appeared to be a serious risk. As a result, the judge found, U.S. authorities could and would adequately safeguard Love’s welfare.
That was the conclusion emphatically rejected by the British appeals court. The court concluded that suicide prevention programs in U.S. prisons are so crude and harsh that they actually increase the likelihood of a prisoner’s suicide. The court placed particular emphasis on the warnings of neuropsychiatry professor Michael Kopelman that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’s “suicide prevention program” — which “involve[s] an inmate on suicide watch being put into a suicide prevention room, wearing a suicide smock, and being monitored for 24 hours a day, without any unapproved personal items” — would likely exacerbate all of the conditions it was ostensibly designed to treat:
The appeals court also relied on the testimony of Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology who specializes in autism, who “took issue with the sufficiency of the protocols operated in America, to support prisoners with Asperger Syndrome, depression and at high suicidal risk.” In particular, “mentally ill inmates were often put in solitary confinement where they cannot access mental health services, with especially negative consequences for Mr. Love,” and “he would not receive treatment for clinical depression until it reached ‘crisis/suicidal’ level.”
Extensively analyzing ample medical testimony along with standard procedures in U.S. prisons for treating inmates with physical and mental illnesses, the British appeals court concluded that U.S. prison “treatment” would not effectively help his illnesses but would do exactly the opposite: They “would be very harmful for his difficult mental conditions, Asperger Syndrome and depression, linked as they are; and for his physical conditions, notable eczema, which would be exacerbated by stress. That in turn would add to his worsening mental condition, which in its turn would worsen his physical conditions.”
In sum, concluded the court, the way in which U.S. prisons “treat” inmates with mental illnesses and suicidal impulses — with segregation, isolation, and a lack of ongoing medical and mental health care — almost certainly means that extradition to the U.S. would worsen Love’s health and create a very high likelihood of driving him to suicide:
Suicide watch is not a form of treatment; there is no evidence that treatment would or could be made available on suicide watch for the very conditions which suicide watch itself exacerbates. But once removed from suicide watch, the risk of suicide as found by the judge, cannot realistically be prevented, on her findings. … Mr Love already experiences severe depression at times. It is very difficult to envisage that his mental state after ten years in and out of segregation would not be gravely worsened, should he not commit suicide.
That the U.S. prison system is cruel and abusive when it comes to treating inmates’ mental health problems is well-documented. A decade ago, the Department of Justice itself acknowledged that “more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails.”
As the U.S. prison population has exploded — the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other country, including those (such as China and India) with triple or quadruple the population sizes — the ability of prison officials to treat mental health has worsened. A comprehensive report last June by Maggie Puniewska in Vice documented that “many mentally ill inmates are often abused and denied care, even when it’s clear that they are suffering,” and “inmates on suicide watch would be left alone for days at a time — ironically, no one was watching them.” Worse, “mentally ill inmates can find themselves in solitary confinement, also called segregation, which is more often a placement that can aggravate their condition.”
Indeed, the pervasive use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S prisons — which many medical professionals now regard as a form of torture — often exacerbates the suffering of inmates with mental health problems. A clinical study published in 2013 noted that “in recent years, prison officials have increasingly turned to solitary confinement as a way to manage difficult or dangerous prisoners,” and that “many of the prisoners subjected to isolation, which can extend for years, have serious mental illness, and the conditions of solitary confinement can exacerbate their symptoms or provoke recurrence.”
In 2009, Human Rights Watch testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that “prisons are ill-equipped to respond appropriately to the needs of prisoners with mental illness. Prison mental health services are all too frequently woefully deficient, crippled by understaffing, insufficient facilities, and limited programs. Many seriously ill prisoners receive little or no meaningful treatment.” As a result, “mentally ill prisoners suffer painful symptoms and their conditions can deteriorate.” The American Civil Liberties Union has repeatedly sued various prison systems for inadequate mental health care on the grounds that it constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as barred by the U.S. Constitution.
Monday’s ruling by the British court is certain to infuriate the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2012, U.S. law enforcement denounced the decision of then-Home-Secretary Theresa May, now the British prime minister, to refuse the extradition to the U.S. of accused British hacker Gary McKinnon “on human rights grounds because of medical reports warning that McKinnon, 46, who has Asperger’s syndrome and suffers from depressive illness, could kill himself if sent to stand trial in the U.S.” As the BBC noted at the time, May’s decision was “the first time a home secretary had stepped in to block an extradition under the current treaty with the U.S.”
That a British high court has now blocked another extradition request by the U.S. for a hacker regarded by American authorities as a serious criminal is certain to heighten tensions further between these two close allies. Even more importantly, this decision — as comprehensive and emphatic as it is — could be critical for shining international light on the oppressive and brutal conditions inside the solitary-confinement-loving American prison system, particularly for people who struggle with ailments of mental health.