British resident Lauri Love was arrested on suspicion of having hacked into key U.S. computer systems in October 2013. He’s been fighting U.S. authorities’ efforts to have him extradited ever since, maintaining that he should be tried in the United Kingdom. On Monday, Love scored a victory: An appeals court agreed that extraditing him to the U.S. would be “oppressive by reason of his physical and mental condition.” Love has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and suffers from depression, asthma, and eczema.
The premise of the case alone was damning: The principle questions the court enumerated for resolution surrounded Love’s health and rights in light of “the conditions he would face in the United States.” Indeed, much of the opinion concerns the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and its treatment (or lack thereof) of imprisoned people. Several experts testified to establish what U.S. prison practices would mean for someone with Love’s unique set of ailments.
Professor Baron-Cohen took issue with the sufficiency of the protocols operated in America, to support prisoners [like Love] with Asperger Syndrome, depression and at high suicidal risk, as described by Dr Lyn, Psychology Services Branch Administrator of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”), and others. They were not satisfactory for a patient with the unique combination of depression, Asperger Syndrome and eczema. Non-emergency mental health services are voluntary but his Asperger Syndrome would be likely to prevent Mr Love seeking regular psychiatric help, so he would not receive treatment for clinical depression until it reached “crisis/suicidal” level. He would be unlikely to be allowed to see a private physician, who could be better qualified to help. Mentally ill inmates were often put in solitary confinement where they cannot access mental health services, with especially negative consequences for Mr Love.
The court’s distaste was evident in its descriptions of solitary confinement and suicide watch, as were hints of incredulity.
The BOP suicide prevention programme involved an inmate on suicide watch being put into a suicide prevention room, wearing a suicide smock and being monitored for 24 hours a day, without any unapproved personal items. That would leave Mr Love feeling extremely isolated in the absence of an internet connection and undoubtedly would have a severe adverse effect on his mental state. Social isolation was known to precipitate psychotic experiences, including psychotic depression, and increase suicidal ideas. A severe deterioration in clinical depression, a likely recurrence of psychotic ideas, a severe deterioration in his physical health with an exacerbation of eczema and asthma, should be anticipated in such circumstances. Suicidal risk would increase to ‘very high’ in consequence, exacerbating rather than reducing the risk of suicide. His mental condition would remove his mental capacity to resist the impulse to commit suicide. His ability to cope with the trial would be severely compromised.
One expert testified that the suicide prevention measures were adequate because no one had committed suicide while on suicide watch. The court dove deeper.
[W]hat Dr Lyn said . . . did not reflect the reality of the services available in BOP prisons. In reality, in view of their other functions, only two or three psychologists were available in each institution for direct inmate health care. Positions were often kept vacant because of cost, and the ratio of inmates in need of care for significant psychological difficulties to staff psychologists was about 100/130:1. And that one had other tasks to fulfil as well. Court ordered evaluations were the major part of the workload. But it happened sometimes that they had to act as correctional guards because of shortages. Most inmates were only treated by way of medication. The psychologists had to respond to crises all the time, and a high level of arrivals and turnover.
Even if Love were to have access to one of these mental health professionals, that contact would be insufficient to meaningfully address his medical conditions. The absence of care would exacerbate his conditions.
The combination of special expertise with Asperger Syndrome and intensive cognitive behaviour therapy with dermatology treatment was not available at MCC or MDC or post-sentence facilities on a regular basis. The BOP did not provide the level of comprehensive care needed. “The failure to provide Mr Love with comprehensive mental health and medical care, in the context of the enhanced stress of incarceration and removal of his social support system, will likely result in a deterioration of his psychological condition and significantly increase the risk of suicide.”
The appeals court recognizes that it is the unique combination of Love’s particular, inter-related conditions and the shortcomings of the U.S. prison system that generated this rare refusal to extradite. Few other suspects and defendants would qualify. Yet, the precedent has been set (albeit only conceptually, as it’s not binding in future cases in Britain)—and it will stand unless the U.S. challenges the court’s decision within 14 days.