At least three whistleblowers have been held at Alexandria Detention Center. It is where Chelsea Manning was held when she refused to testify before the WikiLeaks grand jury. Similar to Kromberg’s declaration, Manning’s jailers claimed she was not in solitary confinement, which does exist at their facility, but administrative segregation.
Manning was kept alone in her cell for over twenty-two hours a day and was only allowed to leave between the hours of 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM. Although Manning was removed from solitary after public pressure, the UN special rapporteur on torture still found the US government had tortured her.
Assange’s treatment if he is extradited, under the United States’ own assurances, would constitute torture under international law.
This was the second time a UN special rapporteur on torture had made such a finding. In 2012, when Chelsea Manning was court-martialed for giving WikiLeaks the documents at the heart of the Assange indictment, her pretrial detention in a military jail was found to constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and possibly torture.
CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling described his own time at the Alexandria Detention Center in harrowing detail. Sterling recalled being placed in a “holding cell with numerous other detainees. We were packed in like so much garbage, sleeping on the floor and having to use an open toilet” before being moved to “special cell block” that also housed Zacarias Moussaoui (convicted of involvement in the 9/11 attacks). According to Sterling, his time in this unit was in solitary confinement, and he “would spend days on end without being let out of my small cell.”
Drone whistleblower Daniel Hale was also recently imprisoned at the Alexandria Detention Center. After pleading guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act, Hale was initially released on his own recognizance. But after a therapist reported Hale as suicidal, Hale was ordered taken into custody, allegedly for his own mental health. Such a move is perverse on numerous levels. As Hale’s attorney Jesselyn Radack told Jacobin, “Daniel’s initial time at the Alexandria Detention Center was tantamount to torture. Despite his public struggle with severe PTSD, anxiety, and depression, he spent the first two weeks in solitary confinement, which is scientifically proven to increase a prisoner’s chance of suicide.”
After being sentenced, a judge recommended Hale be sent to a federal medical facility. First, Hale was transferred to Northern Neck Regional Jail where he was housed in a room with 100 other inmates. When he was placed in federal custody, Hale was sent to United States Penitentiary, Marion, in a Communications Management Unit (CMU).
Far from a medical center, the harsh conditions of CMUs have led civil libertarians to dub them “Guantanamo North.” CMUs are “prison units designed to isolate and segregate certain prisoners in the federal prison system from the rest of the . . . population.” Physical contact between CMU inmates and visitors is barred, inmates can neither write to nor call people without prior approval, and all communications are monitored.
The United States makes no assurances that Assange will not be placed in a CMU. In fact, Kromberg’s declaration explicitly makes clear that it’s possible. Kromberg claims, however, “The CMU Program Statement contains specific and detailed procedures and criteria for designating an inmate to a CMU.” Kromberg also made the astonishing claim that “CMU inmates are afforded the same opportunities to communicate with individuals outside of prison as regular inmates.”
Those who are familiar with CMUs sharply differ with how Kromberg portrayed them to British judges. Since 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights has been challenging CMU policies in court. I shared a copy of Kromberg’s declaration with Rachel Meeropol, one of the attorneys on the case. She told me, “The assertions in [Kromberg’s declaration] are flat wrong. CMU prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world is far more restricted than prisoners in general population units in the Bureau of Prisons. . . . It is for these reasons, among others, that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals held that the CMUs are ‘atypical and significant’ compared to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”
As far as Kromberg’s claim about specific procedures for assigning inmates to the CMU, Meeropol noted, “The Bureau of Prisons’ failure to implement these procedures in a meaningful way is the subject of ongoing litigation.” In fact, just one week before the UK High Court hearing, Meeropol was before the DC Circuit Court as part of said litigation.
Hale, his supporters, and his attorney were all taken by complete surprise at the drone whistleblower’s placement in a CMU. Hale’s attorney Raddack initially struggled to get any officials to give her any sort of explanation. Eventually, prison officials claimed Hale was placed in a CMU because he committed a communications-based crime.
Hale’s crime was violating the Espionage Act by giving information about US drone warfare to the media. By this standard, Assange, who stands accused of violating the Espionage Act for publishing information about US war crimes, has also committed a communications-based crime.
Past treatment of US whistleblowers, coupled with the extreme animus the US government has for the Australian journalist, paints a grim picture of what is in store for Assange. And concerns about his treatment at the hands of the US government are escalated by concerns about Assange’s health.
“Absolutely No Treatment for My Mental Health”
Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi had a similar reaction. Maurizi has been collaborating with Assange and WikiLeaks since 2007. She has seen Assange in a number of states, including under house arrest and in the Ecuadorian embassy. During a panel hosted by Defending Rights & Dissent, where I work, Maurizi recalled the last time she saw Assange face to face. It was November 2018, and Assange was still living in the Ecuadorian embassy.
According to the investigative reporter, Assange “was really in bad shape to an extent that I wrote a very desperate message to my editor at La Repubblica. I texted, I sent an email saying he’s dying. He’s lost so much weight. He’s really done.” According to Maurizi, that was nothing compared to how unhealthy Assange appeared during the appeal hearing.
Assange’s health has become a major point of concern for his supporters. Yet in US prisons, he is unlikely to get much in the way of care. In Sterling’s account of his time at the Alexandria Detention Center, both mental and physical health care were sparse. “The only attention to my mental health,” Sterling told me, “was a cursory exam by a disinterested staff doctor whose only concern was providing a report for the EDVA [Eastern District of Virginia] judge. There was absolutely no treatment for my deteriorating mental health.”
Sterling had recently had a total knee replacement and “absolutely no medical attention was provided. In fact, I was not provided my prescribed medications and that neglect had a definite impact on my recovery.” Sterling did not fare much better in federal prison; he had a chronic heart condition and had trouble receiving medical treatment there.
Keep the US Government’s Hands Off Assange
When Assange was taken out of the Ecuadorian embassy by London police, he was holding a copy of a book of interviews with Gore Vidal. Maurizi had given Assange the book as a gift. While gifting it, the Italian investigative journalist recounted to Assange how Vidal had lived in her native Italy on the Amalfi Coast on the Mediterranean.
As she spoke, Assange began to close his eyes. According to Maurizi, she asked, “Why are you closing your eyes? He said, because ‘I am trying to remember how it was to be outside of a building and in an open space close to the sea. I’m trying to remember.’ He didn’t remember how to go to the sea and to be free.”
For over a decade, Assange has not been free — first on house arrest, then inside the Ecuadorian embassy, now inside Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. According to various UN human rights experts, he has been subjected to arbitrary detention, psychological torture, and collective persecution. His youngest two children have never known a time when their father was free.
Assange’s case is about press freedom, not just in the United States, but globally. But there is also a real human side to it. That the US, if they are able to get their hands on the journalist, will almost certainly subject him to cruel conditions of confinement should alarm everyone. Under no circumstances can the US government be allowed to get their hands on Assange.
Wikileaks / JACOBIN