The lawyer for convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef says his client is no longer dangerous enough to justify being kept in near-constant solitary confinement.
"They act like if he had a safety pin and bar of soap he would make a nuclear weapon," attorney Bernard Kleinman said. "He's a bright guy, but he can't turn lead into gold."
Yousef is a 45-year-old who was the chief mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (he and Jordanian friend Eyad Ismoil rigged a van with explosives and detonated it in a public parking garage under the WTC, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000). He has been imprisoned since 1995 and has served the last 15 of those years in solitary confinement in "the Alcatraz of the Rockies," a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where Ismoil is also serving a life sentence.
The case is currently being held up over a disagreement about how it should be tried. By Friday, Kleinman must submit final documents regarding the case's classification. Kleinman wants to argue the case as a "non-core habeas action," not a "conditions of confinement" case — basically saying that the case should be about whether Yousef can continue to be held in solitary confinement at all, not about the conditions of his solitary confinement.
"It is a somewhat arcane area of the law, but is an important distinction," Kleinman said in an email.
After Friday, Kleinman will await the court's decision about whether it will hear the case. If heard, the case will go before federal judge Richard Paul Matsch in a U.S. district court in Colorado. Matsch presided over the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
"The prison and government have never told me why he's still in there," attorney Bernard Kleinman said. "The only reason I've ever been given is that he was implicated in the '93 World Trade Center attacks."
Kleinman argues that it's cruel and unusual to continue to keep someone who's not capable of orchestrating criminal actions from inside the prison in indefinite solitary confinement, adding, "Even inmates in Gitmo aren't kept in situations like that."
Yousef lives in a 7-by-11-foot cell with one small window and a television. He is not allowed to have visitors or interact with other prisoners. He is kept in leg, arm, and belly chains during recreation time, which he has lately stopped taking altogether. Kleinman described his client as "depressed" and said his last human contact was in 2010, when Kleinman visited Yousef and spoke to him through a speaker embedded in Plexiglass.
Kleinman does not dispute Yousef's responsibility for the terror attack: "No one is going to change that. [But] that's outside the purpose of having special solitary imprisonment."
Kleinman said the prison treats Yousef as more dangerous than other inmates even though he has exhibited good behavior. A prisoner within shouting range has murdered people in prison.
Prisons are obligated to "periodically review" cases of solitary confinement and release prisoners who've demonstrated good behavior into the general prison population, the director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, David Fathi, said. "If all the prison is relying on is an almost 20-year-old conviction," he said, "that's circumventing the reason for the review, which is to look at your prison record and behavior."
Kleinman is assigned clients by the federal court system, and his other cases include acting as counsel for Shaaban Shaaban Hafed, an Indiana man accused of selling state secrets to operatives in Iraq.
Yousef's case is part of a larger debate over solitary confinement practices in American prisons. John McCain has called it "awful" and wrote that it "crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment."
Brian Nelson, an advocate at Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago — he spent 23 years in solitary confinement in Illinois after he was found guilty of armed robbery and murder at age 17 — calls solitary not only "inhumane" but "torture" and a scar on the United States' human rights record.
"What Yousef did was wrong," Nelson says, "but should he continue to be held in solitary? No, nobody should. Nobody should be held in that place."