Prosecutors in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition trial have consistently maintained he would be able to talk through the doors or windows of his cell if he was held in solitary confinement—or what the Bureau of Prisons refers to as “administrative segregation.”
“Typically, there are several inmates in administrative segregation,” Gordon Kromberg, assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia told the court in a declaration in support of extradition. “Inmates in administrative segregation are able to speak to one other through the doors and windows of their cells.”
Kromberg makes this claim a second time. “Even in administrative segregation, Assange would be able to communicate with other inmates through the doors and windows of his cell.”
But on September 28, Judge Vanessa Baraitser heard testimony from Yancey Ellis that exposed this as a terrible lie.
The defense and prosecution agree Assange will be held at the Alexandria Detention Center (ADC) if he is extradited. The unit he is most likely to be held in is called the “X block” or “1X.”
Ellis, an attorney who has represented numerous defendants jailed at the ADC, was asked by Edward Fitzgerald, Assange’s defense attorney, whether Assange would be able to “associate with other prisoners.”
As Ellis put it, “The short answer is not really.” The point of “administrative segregation” is to keep a detainee away from all other detainees. Most likely Assange would be in his cell 22 hours a day.
“[It is] very difficult to talk through those doors,” Ellis shared. He previously tried to communicate through those doors in the X block. One almost has to “scream at the top of their lungs.”
The statement to the court from Ellis was even more clear. “While this is technically true, it is practically impossible. In 1X ADSEG the cell doors are made of thick steel and the ‘windows’ are a transparent, thick plexiglass material with no slots or holes.”
“I have tried to speak to my clients through these doors and it is very difficult, even when standing several inches away. I find it implausible that inmates could really communicate in this way, unless they constantly screamed at loud volumes. I would routinely have to ask for a deputy sheriff to open the cell’s food tray slot in order to be able to speak with a client,” Ellis added.
Kromberg’s lie about detainees communicating with one another is part of the U.S. government’s efforts to deceive a British court into believing Assange would not be subject to conditions of solitary confinement. However, as Ellis declared, “1X ADSEG unit is essentially the same as solitary confinement.”
Assange would be in one of the four-to-six cells in the unit. According to Ellis, “Each cell is a single-occupancy cell, less than approximately 50 square feet, and contains a sleeping area, a small sink, and a toilet. Meals are typically taken inside the inmate’s cell.”
He would have one-to-two hours out of his cell on any given day. This time outside of his cell may come at “very odd hours,” Ellis said.
“This is typically spent in the common area of the ADSEG unit, which may be about twice the square footage,” Ellis additionally shared. “Based on my experience, only one inmate in the ADSEG unit is permitted to be outside of his cell at one time. There is limited interaction with other ADSEG inmates during this time because their doors and food-tray slots are closed.”
Once again, it would be impossible for Assange to talk to any of the few detainees housed in the unit.
Joel Sickler, an expert on jail and prison conditions who heads the Justice Advocacy Group in Alexandria, testified after Ellis. He told the court in secure housing units, or SHUs, “There’s a lot of noise and a lot of screaming. It renders people angry and confused, and there’s a lot of yelling.”
“To have a discourse between inmates for social reasons is a little preposterous,” Sickler declared.
Sickler informed the court, “There is significant sensory deprivation comparable to isolation in a cell. There is little natural light as well as access to fresh air. There is no communication allowed with other prisoners.”
“There is usually one 15-minute phone call to family allowed per month and all calls are monitored. The inmates are denied access to information regarding current events with all materials being censored.”
“The Alexandria Sheriff’s Office will allow Mr. Assange’s attorneys to meet with him at any time during professional visiting hours,” Sickler additionally noted. “However, placement in the ADSEG unit at the ADC could compromise Mr. Assange’s ability to focus on and assist his attorneys in his defense—for reasons related to how debilitating the experience can be for a prisoner.”
Prosecutor Clair Dobbin led a lengthy cross-examination of Sickler, attempting to disqualify him as an expert witness.
At one point, Sickler shared his experience representing an individual who had a mental breakdown at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. He notified the administrators that he had a “serious psychiatric disorder,” but they dismissed him. He later acted out and was “severely beaten by correctional officers” then “thrown in the hole naked.”
Eventually, a federal court granted him bail, and the state wrote a writ for treatment at the Bellevue psychiatric center.
Dobbin justified the inhuman treatment Sickler’s client endured, saying this example showed “judicial oversight” occurred. The system worked, although he was abused before he was sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Ever the detector of devious tricks by Assange’s legal team, lead prosecutor James Lewis asked Ellis if the defense had him insert the words “solitary confinement” in his statement to the court. He said no. When one considers the amount of time detainees in administrative segregation are allowed outside their cell, that is “generally equivalent to solitary confinement.”
Lewis also insisted to Ellis that Assange would not be in solitary confinement if he was meeting with his lawyers three hours each day.
When high-profile defendants like Maria Butina and Paul Manafort were housed at the ADC, they were placed in “administrative segregation.” Ellis believes Assange would be treated no differently.
In a rare moment, Baraitser actually had a question and asked Ellis to expand on how the Bureau of Prisons handles high-profile defendants.
“Assange has been in custody in this jurisdiction for 18 months,” in the general wing in the prison in the United Kingdom, Baraitser said. “Other than his being a public figure, any reason you think he’ll be held in administrative segregation?”
Ellis contended the “primary reason” is that he is a “public figure,” though perhaps his mental health could factor into the decision. The mental health unit in the jail is in the general population, and if they did not want him to associate with inmates, they would have to put him in “administrative segregation.” Whether one’s case is “high profile” or not “won’t affect conditions in which you are held,” Baraitser told Ellis. “Is that not the same? The mere fact you are high-profile dictates conditions?”
Ellis could not say how specific conditions and factors would be consulted when placing Assange. Yet, he did indicate from his experience with the jail that the ADC likes to “segregate these types of defendants.”
“I can’t tell you why, just that it’s been the case,” Ellis declared.