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Julian Assange’s Potential Fate in U.S. Prisons

Assange is under a 17-count indictment in the U.S. for violations of the Espionage Act and one unsealed count, bringing the total to 18 counts. American Justice Department officials allege that Assange violated the Espionage Act when he published classified documents obtained by Chelsea Manning, who was a U.S. Army soldier at the time.

On September 28, the London court considering Assange’s extradition heard testimony describing prison conditions at the facilities where Assange would likely be held. The testimony revolved around four key issues: 1) the general conditions at the facilities, 2) whether Assange would be able to interact with other prisoners regularly, 3) the standard of medical care available, and 4) what, if any, “special administrative measures” (SAMs) prison officials might impose on Assange that could make his imprisonment worse.

The Court heard from Joel Sickler, a prisoner advocate, and Yancey Ellis, a defense attorney. They both testified that Assange would likely be detained at the Alexandria Detention Center (ADC) until trial, and if found guilty, transferred to the ADX Supermax Federal Prison in Florence, Colorado.

Both Ellis and Sickler testified that the cells in the segregation unit at ADC were about the size of a small parking space and that communicating with other prisoners from these cells was nearly impossible. Prisoners in segregation at ADC are confined to their cells 22 hours each day. According to both men, conditions at ADX are no better.

Both men also stated that medical care at both facilities is inadequate. Ellis informed the court that ADC does not even employ a doctor and mental health staff is part time, at best. Chelsea Manning attempted suicide while being held at ADC earlier this year.

There was speculation about the imposition of SAMs on Assange, but both witnesses concurred in their assessment that he would likely be held in the tightest conditions. There is no limit to the duration of solitary at ADX, and Sickler noted that a former ADX warden had described living at the facility as “worse than death.”

Justice Department officials submitted affidavits assuring the Court that Assange would not face undue hardship at their hands, and they asserted that the mental and physical health care at both ADC and ADX were adequate. None of these officials was available for cross-examination. Assange’s father, John Shipton, protested outside the court. He summed up the hearings by saying that even though U.S. officials tried to paint ADX as a “country club,” he was unambiguous about the American government’s zeal to prosecute his son for exposing war crimes.

It is unclear what effect, if any, the evidence about U.S. prison conditions will have on the London court’s decision.