Federal Judge Rules Viktor Bout's Solitary Confinement is Unconstitutional

Viktor Bout, convicted of arms trafficking and awaiting sentencing in New York, has been ordered to be moved out of solitary confinement. A federal judge today ruled such treatment unconstitutional.

Although I recognize that courts are loathe to interfere with questions of prison administration, an area in which the BOP is best suited to make decisions, I cannot shirk my duty under the Constitution and Turner to ensure that Bout's confinement is not arbitrarily and excessively harsh.


The Judge said Bout was no terrorist:

"This case differs significantly from a standard terrorism case....As noted earlier, Bout was approached by government agents, posing as members of the FARC (a terrorist organization) and after many conversations agreed to sell them arms. There was absolutely no evidence at trial that he had any connection (now or ever) to any member of the FARC.

To the contrary, the evidence showed that Bout performed research on the FARC because he knew little about them and that he was initially not inclined to do business with such an organization. Indeed, the evidence did not reveal any ties to any terrorist organization in the last ten years.

Completely unsubstantiated allegations of 'affiliation with a terrorist organization is not sufficient cause' to single out a prisoner for administrative detention. Moreover, there was never any evidence offered at trial that Bout himself engaged in violent acts; rather, the evidence showed that he was a businessman engaged in arms trafficking.

The judge also blasted the Government's attempt to justify the solitary confinement on the high publicity in Bout's case, calling it a "weak and dangerous argument":

"Many, many defendants - such as white collar defendants engaged in fraud, or mobsters involved in the Mafia - receive broad publicity, but the defendants nonetheless are released on bail or assigned to general population,"

Here is the Judge's description of Bout's conditions of confinement:

"Essentially, Bout is in solitary confinement residing in a one-man cell in which he eats, sleeps, and washes. He spends 23 hours a day in this cell and is taken out for one hour of exercise per day in a room only slightly larger than his cell. He is alone for his exercise period. The cell has two small frosted glass windows that allow very little natural light or fresh air. Other than visits with counsel, trips to court, a family visit once a week, or trips upstairs to access to electronic evidence (during trial preparation), he does not leave his cell.

While he has some limited access to commissary, it is far more restrictive than the commissary privileges available to general population prisoners. He is only allowed one telephone call a month, which is an SHU limitation. He has no interaction with other prisoners. When transported off the SHU, he is placed in full restraints. Counsel concludes his letter with the claim that the prolonged solitary confinement that Bout has endured may have a serious adverse affect on his mental health."

The Judge then granted Bout's request to be moved:

"After fifteen months in solitary confinement with extremely minimal human contact and mobility, Viktor Bout requests that he be transferred to general population. The Supreme Court has noted that '[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections o f the Constitution' and that '[w]hen a prison . . . practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights.'

The Judge said that because she "cannot simply defer to the Warden and abandon my duty to uphold the constitution," she must grant Bout's request.

All of our coverage of Viktor Bout's case is accessible here.

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    Judge (5.00 / 3) (#1)
    by womanwarrior on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 09:32:41 PM EST
    Once again Judge Scheindlin shows that she is courageous, principled and human.  Wish we had more like her.  

    Confinement in a "Special Housing Unit" (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Peter G on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 09:42:11 PM EST
    at a Federal Detention Center gravely disadvantages the defendant in preparing for trial and for sentencing. I know this from personal experience in representing more than one detainee who was subjected to this treatment for ostensible reasons of "high publicity" or "own protection."  The defense always suspects, but can never prove, that the prosecutors have a hand in suggesting this "special" treatment to jail authorities.  Good for Judge Scheindlin.