Tsarnaev Jury Hears About Life at Supermax

Yesterday and today, the defense in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial presented evidence about life at Supermax in Florence, CO.

Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sought Wednesday to convince jurors in the death-penalty case that Tsarnaev could end up in the country’s most secure federal prison, locked in a cell 23 hours a day, with limited communication with the outside world — if the jury votes for a life sentence.

...Under those conditions, Tsarnaev would be limited to two 15-minute telephone conversations with only immediate family members each month, his mail would be screened, and he would be confined to a single-inmate cell.


A prison consultant testified to the conditions. The prosecutor, on cross, brought out that there's no way to know for certain where Tsarnaev would be designated and even if he was designated to Supermax, how long Tsarnaev would stay there -- he could at some point in his life be moved elsewhere.

Tsarnaev is now subjected to SAMS (special administrative measures.) If sent to Supermax, he'd likely go to the "H" unit, which is the Special Security Unit for those with SAMS. (See 28 C.F.R. §§ 501.2 and 501.3.)

Here is a 2011 affidavit by Supermax Associate Warden Louis J. Milusnic on the H Unit. Here's a 2009 affidavit by Dennis Collins, unit manager of the General Population units at Supermax, submitted in a lawsuit brought by Shoe Bomber Richard Reid. Reid spent 7 years in the H Unit before his SAMS were terminated in 2009 and he was moved to a General Population unit two months later. From the affidavits:

Life in the H Unit:

Each cell in H-Unit has approximately 75.5 square feet of living space and does not have a sallyport or a shower. Each cell has a solid outer door. Each cell’s solid outer door has a window, which looks out on to the range. Each cell also has a window that looks outside, providing the inmate with natural lighting. While inmate Reid was housed in H-Unit, the inmates received a minimum of 5 hours of out-of-cell exercise per week. The inmates in H-Unit are currently receiving 7 hours of out-of-cell exercise per week. The inmates recreate individually in secure single recreation areas. The inmates consume their meals in their cells. The inmates receive two monthly social telephone calls and may receive social visits.

The General Population units aren't much better:

Each cell in the General Population Units is 87 square feet, which does not include the sallyport area of the cell, which is 17 square feet. Each cell has a solid outer door and an inner grill. Each cell solid outer door has a window, which looks out on to the range. Each cell also has a window that looks outside, providing the inmate with natural lighting. Inmates in general population receive a minimum of 10 hours of out-of-cell exercise per week. The inmates recreate individually in secure single recreation areas. The inmates consume their meals in their cells. Shower stalls are located within the cells. Inmate Reid is now permitted to purchase items from the General Population commissary list.

In General population, inmates get some outdoor (not just out of cell) exercise and more TV stations. There are 4 General Population units.

[GP inmates]have individual black and white televisions in each cell, which provide 24-hour select broadcast channels (60 Channels); channels for closed circuit institutional programming (Recreation, Education, Religious Services, and Psychology); radio stations; and digital music channels.

GP inmates are allowed communication with the media (28 CFR 541.20). The General Population units have a step down program, with the potential for transfer to a less secure institution. It's a long process -- 3 years-- during which the inmate may "progress" from the General Population Units, through "Intermediate and Transitional Units, to finally, the Pre-Transfer Unit located at the United States Penitentiary, High Security, Florence, Colorado. Each stage has a few more "privileges."

The H Unit has a similar but separate program. For more, check out the 2014 Amnesty International Report, Entombed: Isolation in the Federal Prison System. More about Admax is here.

There are also "supermax" units at the federal prisons in Marion, IL and Terre Haute, IN. Wherever Jahar is designated, should he get life, it won't be pleasant and his life as he knew it will be over. A life sentence is a death sentence -- the only way out is in a pine box. It's just a question of when.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Not exactly a Perry Mason moment... (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Mr Natural on Fri May 08, 2015 at 06:56:58 AM EST
    when the defense wins by showing the jury that they can sentence a man to something worse than death, "a clean version of hell," according to former ADX Warden Robert Hood.

    FWIW, the above linked New York Magazine story describes an apparently slowly succeeding lawsuit by Denver Attorney Ed Aro on behalf of some of the ADX's mentally ill multitudes.

    Abu-Ghraib in the Rockies... A Shining $hithole in the Hills.  

    they're throwing everything at the wall (none / 0) (#3)
    by CST on Fri May 08, 2015 at 09:05:45 AM EST
    And hoping something sticks.

    It might be this, it might be something else.


    Nor Do We Even Know... (none / 0) (#4)
    by ScottW714 on Fri May 08, 2015 at 09:10:01 AM EST
    ...if the kid wants to live.

    I can not get down with the argument "Killing him would be the most humane option, so let's not do that".

    Success for the defense means a hell worse than death for Dzhokhar, literally.  And if the jury actually decides to go with the most human option, the state will kill him.


    I'd want to live. (none / 0) (#6)
    by Mr Natural on Sun May 10, 2015 at 09:14:06 PM EST
    As miserable as that life might be, I'd want to live.

    I don't know anything about that kid.  He may be whipsawing back and forth between wanting to live and wanting to die, but at some point, I'd bet he'll want to live.  His mask will crumble, as it did when he saw his aunt break down in court, and he'll realize that more than anything else he wants to live.


    Agreed, I would Probably Not Want... (none / 0) (#7)
    by ScottW714 on Mon May 11, 2015 at 08:51:16 AM EST
    ...someone to kill me.

    But I don't want kill people either, and I don't think doing so will get me 72 virgins alongside other jihadists, including my brother.

    Believing he thinks like you or me just because he wept in court isn't really a definitive answer to whether or not he wants to live or die.


    Where, in the Constitution, does it state, (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by NYShooter on Fri May 08, 2015 at 11:01:13 AM EST
    that a defendant found guilty at trial should be sentenced to a "clean version of hell?"

    Confinement, and loss of virtually all freedoms, isn't enough?

    It seems as if torture is hard-wired into our genes. And, trust me, should Tsarnaev be spared the death penalty he can look forward to a lifetime of torture. (Solitary confinement and the denial of all forms of external stimuli is as punitive as any form & amount of beatings.)

    Apparently, there's a bit of an argument (none / 0) (#1)
    by scribe on Thu May 07, 2015 at 06:00:40 PM EST
    going on over whether the defense will get to call Sister Helen Prejean as a witness.  Press reports say she's been in the courthouse.