Few months ago, the European Court of human rights confirmed the admissibility of a complaint made by Babar Ahmad, Haroon Rashid Aswat and Syed Talha Ahsan. Their extradition to the US was prevented since the stringency of the conditions at ADX Florence (a “supermax” prison) for what might be the rest of their lives, inhumane or degrading treatment. The plight of Bradley Manning, the alleged wikileaks “leaker”, has also shed light upon the infamous treatment of detainees placed in solitary confinement in US custody.
Many international instruments have affirmed that prisoners have the right to be dealt with in a way compatible with human dignity and that they should be safe from any form of degrading treatment. The UN Human Rights Committee, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the European Commission on Human rights have stated that isolation, in certain conditions, can constitute a cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Different factors need to be taken into account such as the stringency of the measure, its duration, the objective pursued and the effects it has on the person. We sometimes stay focused on the American carceral system due to its reputation. However, a text written by Djamel Beghal in the darkness of his cell shows us the ignominy of solitary confinement in French prisons.
Djamel Beghal has spent nine years under this regime. He has been transferred from cell to cell, from prison to prison, always living under the same harsh conditions. His account is shameful and horrendous.
Djamel spends 22 or 23 hours alone in his cell. He is allowed a recreation time in a minuscule space, always alone and indoors. He can never see another inmate. When he is displaced for any reason, the floor or the whole prison is blocked. Only the senior guard is permitted to talk to him or even to open the door of his cell. The shower and the recreational space are situated just in front of his dungeon and going there allows no more than five steps across the corridor. He is taken there by three to five guards.
The vastest room in which Djamel was incarcerated barely reached 9 meters square. He measured one of his cells in a Parisian prison with a small ruler. Result: 5 meters square. His cell is composed of an iron bed with an uncomfortable fireproof mattress. Bed sheets are torn and blankets have a strong and unpleasant smell, giving rise to skin allergies. Every single furniture is fixed in the wall. The table is as high as his chest. Even eating or writing becomes a painful exercise.
The sink is leaking and only cold water comes out of the tap. Above it is a small plastic mirror which deforms his reflection. The toilets are open and right next to the door. Guards often enter into the room without notice while he is reliving himself. Protests from him can engender disciplinary sanctions. Djamel remembers a squat toilet in a cell of la Santé prison as well as the permanent odour in the small room. Once flushed, the floor would be flooded with water, urine and feces.
Before sleeping, he would have to block the hole with a full bottle of water to prevent rats from visiting him at night. Some cells do not have any window. He spent a year and a half in one of them. When a cell is equipped with a “window”, natural light is obstructed by several layers of grills and bars hurting the eyes and causing a slow loss of sight. As for the contact with the external world, Djamel Beghal has been denied access to a phone. His letters are kept for weeks, sometimes months.
Of course, this extreme loneliness has psychological effects. Djamel explains how suicide and madness are constantly trying to break into the mental fortress he tried to build. But the absence of sunlight and the permanent immuring also harm the body: muscles suffer atrophy, bones become fragile, the skin starts its decomposition and the appetite fades away.
Moreover, if one looks at Djamel Beghal’s particular case, it is interesting to see that the only “reason” given to justify his seclusion is the fact that he speaks “calmly and cleverly”. He has no record of violence and has never caused any trouble in prison. He has not been found guilty of any crime and does not know if a trial will take place for the accusations he faces.One might think that this regime can be harsh but might somehow be justified by security purposes. However, the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment in law is absolute and suffers no exception whatsoever. Djamel suggests, by the way, that anybody who holds that kind of opinion should be placed under these life conditions, not for nine years but only for few weeks or months to see if they would still maintain their view.
As awful as these carceral conditions can sound, it is not an unfortunate accident. Rather, it is part of a systematic disregard for the human rights of Muslims labelled as terrorists in France, be it during their arrest, their police custody or their trial. It is the last stage of the dehumanisation process set up by the French anti-terrorist policy.