Don't send my son to hell: The chilling fate experts fear Asperger's victim Gary McKinnon would face in an US prison, Robert Paisola Reports Live
Shackled by uncomfortably tight handcuffs and flanked by two burly U.S.
marshals, he will be frogmarched aboard a passenger jet from Heathrow to
Washington DC like some captured Al Qaeda mastermind.
On landing in the American capital, he will be driven 30 miles to the
Alexandria Detention Centre - a forbidding red-brick holding prison with
narrow slit windows and a huge concrete shield around it to keep out prying
For at least nine months, in the event that his fight against extradition
should fail, this reputedly escape-proof pressure-cooker of a building (a
possible destination for some of the 250 remaining Guantanamo Bay detainees,
when Obama shuts the camp down) will be Gary McKinnon's home.
Decanted there, disoriented and worlds away from the warmth and reassurance
of his mother's house in Hertfordshire, the British computer hacker will be
strip-searched, de-loused and dressed in a green or brown jumpsuit with
'Prisoner' emblazoned across the back.
Then he will be locked in a concrete cell furnished only with a stainless
steel sink and toilet. He will share this cramped space with at least one
other remand prisoner - who might be anyone from the town drunk to a
terrorist - and possibly sleep on a mattress on the floor because the centre
is so overcrowded.
All this would be daunting enough for the most psychologically robust among
us; so quite how it will affect Gary - who suffers from Asperger's syndrome,
which makes even the smallest alteration to his routine an anguished trial -
one shudders to imagine.
And yet, as I have learned this week when examining the probable course of
events should the British authorities abandon this foolishly misguided
technology geek to the full force of the U.S. justice system, his stay at
Alexandria, Virginia, would be just the beginning of a truly Kafkaesque
For, at a time when President Obama is set to appoint a new 'cyber tsar' to
tackle the hundreds of hackers who attempt to breach the Pentagon's internet
security each day (including some altogether more sinister figures from
China, Russia and North Korea), I have to report that there is no sympathy
for Gary McKinnon's plight in America.
His case may be seven years old; Bush and his neo-cons may have been run out
of town by a very different kind of President; he may have caused minimal
disruption in his avowed quest to find evidence of little green men.
Yet Gary embarrassed the combined might of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force
and NASA when the wounds of 9/11 were still raw, and as one former CIA
officer with close ties to the National Security Council told me: 'The
attitude is that you don't do something like that and get away with it.
People still want an example made of this guy - and, no matter what he says,
the view is that he was no harmless UFO nut.'
Moreover, the truth is that the American courts seldom give much credence to
pleas for leniency on the grounds of mental disturbance (dozens of killers
who would be considered unfit to plead in Britain are on death row).
And in the Eastern District of Virginia - where Gary's case would be heard
by Judge Timothy S. Ellis, a Reaganappointee - justice is notoriously
In theory, Gary could face 60 years for hacking into 92 military computer
systems. He is highly unlikely to be jailed for anywhere near that long, but
he is sure to receive a lengthy sentence, assuming he is found, or pleads,
At that point, he will be transferred from the holding prison to an even
more daunting bear-pit: a U.S. federal penitentiary. The ordeal this
highly-strung, socially awkward man is likely to face there is spelled out
in a chilling affidavit by American criminologist Joel Sickler.
It has just been submitted to the High Court in London, and will form a key
plank of Gary's appeal against extradition. Mr Sickler has been assisting
U.S. prisoners for 28 years, and his 30-page submission counters an
assurance, given by U.S. officials to the Home Office extradition section,
that Gary would be well looked after in jail by psychiatrists, counsellors
and social workers.
'In my opinion, Gary McKinnon, if surrendered to the U.S., will almost
certainly be exposed to neglectful care within the U.S. Federal Bureau Of
Prisons and will certainly suffer more than the average healthy inmate,' he
'To be quite frank, the Bureau has a well-known and terrible track record of
delivering on any type of health care required by an inmate, especially
those with some form of mental impairment.' To support his assertion, Mr
Sickler, head of the Virginia-based Justice Advocacy Group, describes the
cruelty meted out to another prisoner diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome
during 30 months at Butner, North Carolina; one of the federal correctional
institutions where Gary could serve his time.
To the shameful indifference of wardens, the prisoner, Seth, was subjected
to a campaign of threats, bullying, ridicule and theft by inmates.
This, he says, was 'entirely due to Seth's inability to interact with his
peers due to his inadequately developed social skills that result from his
'In a typical day, Seth is subject to harmful practical jokes such as
Vaseline on his equipment and doorknob in his room, oil soaking through his
mattress, and having his cell room ransacked. If he reports these incidents
he risks being placed in an isolation cell that punishes only him and fails
to address the issue.'
On one occasion, he states, the prisoner was thrown in 'The Hole' - a
solitary confinement unit - for a week, supposedly for his own protection.
Razor blades were regularly hidden in his shoes and other belongings; his
locker was broken into almost every day and the Prozac upon which he relied
to combat depression was twice stolen.
The trial judge recommended he was sent to Butner because it was thought to
have the best medical unit to deal with his condition, Mr Sickler writes.
Once there, he was not even sent to this unit and his condition was
It is possible Seth was singled out because he had been convicted of
offences relating to child pornography, though Mr Sickler denies this was a
factor because the other prisoners did not know why he was at Butner.
At all events, his case is all too typical in U.S. prisons, he says.
'Assurances (that Gary will receive), medical and mental health examinations
in addition to appropriate care ( pharmacological and therapeutic) are also
suspect, given the Bureau Of Prisons' track record for failing to provide
for these things as they claim.' He depicts a prison system which sounds
more like that of a Third World country than the world's greatest democracy.
Medical records are routinely lost; access to urgently needed psychiatric
care can take days, and the Department of Justice's assurance to the Home
Office 'that the Bureau is equipped to deal with something as unique as
Asperger's syndrome is especially far-reaching and dubious'.
Mr Sickler's views are supported by others who have seen what happens to
emotionally vulnerable prisoners in the U.S. Men such as Darius McCollum, a
43-year-old New Yorker whose peculiar intelligence and serially obsessive
personality bears comparison with Gary McKinnon's.
While Gary felt compelled to hack into U.S. military and NASA computers in
his search for proof that UFOs exist, McCollum was obsessed with New York
His fixation began when he was a toddler, and by the age of eight he
possessed photographic recall of every twist and turn of the city's vast
At 15, he made headlines by sneaking behind the controls of a subway train
and driving it several miles, from midtown Manhattan to the World Trade
In the 28 years since, McCollum has become the scourge of the New York
Transit Authority, impersonating guards, carrying out safety inspections and
asking to see passengers' tickets. As a result, the so-called 'Train Man'
(named after the autistic genius portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film
Rain Man) has spent more than half his adult life in prison.
His Asperger's syndrome was diagnosed long ago, yet the courts refuse to
accept it as mitigation.
As with Gary's British supporters, many New Yorkers believe the Train Man
shouldn't be in jail, but that with his vast knowledge and enthusiasm he
ought to be employed by the Transit Authority.
Just like Gary, he has never harmed anyone, and believes in delusion that by
meddling with trains he is doing society a service. And, again like Gary,
his stoutest defender down the years has been his mother, Elizabeth.
Now 80, she says she is too weary to go on fighting ignorance and
indifference about her son's condition.
But when I tell her about the British family who may face the same battles,
she says: 'I doubt your man will get any help if they bring him here.
'My son is lucky because he's in New York, where they are more progressive
and have started to recognise that he's not really a criminal, but someone
who needs professional treatment. But in Virginia, it just isn't going to
Mrs McCollum claims her son was also beaten up in prison - by a corrections
officer who mistook his unusual manner for insubordination. But he has since
learned to survive in the system.
She says: 'Gary will have to keep his head down because there are people in
there who will do him in without even thinking about it. My son converted to
Islam for a time because the Muslim prisoners were the only ones who looked
out for him.'
Ordinarily, a prisoner such as Gary could expect to be held in a minimum
security prison. Yet Joel Stickler says that Bureau Of Prisons regulations
state that a foreign national cannot be sent to such a jail.
Since his hacking exploits are alleged to have compromised the nation's
defence systems, his status is likely to be 'ratcheted up' to medium
security. And in America, 'medium' means tough.
He would probably find an armed robber, drug baron or Mafia overlord on the
bottom bunk in his two-man cell. Such characters tend to be patriotic and
are unlikely to take kindly to a British computer nerd who thumbed his nose
at their country.
Given the nature of his alleged offences, however, Gary might be considered
a 'communication threat' which could mean he would be sent to a special unit
in the Terre Haute correctional facility, Indiana, designed to prevent
inmates having any outside contact.
Opened two years ago on the site of a former death-row block, all but two of
the inmates are Muslim, and many have been convicted of terror-related
crimes. They include the so-called 'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh,
captured as an enemy combatant during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and
serving 20 years.
The third possibility is Gary will be sent to a lower security detention
facility for foreigners facing deportation on completion of their sentence.
While this sounds the preferable option, these Spartan 'warehouses', which
are run by private contractors, have a terrible reputation, and in Mr
Stickler's view are 'no place for someone like Gary. If you think the level
of health care is poor in a standard, government-run prison, these privately
administered institutions are much worse'.
And the criminologist ends with one final, morale-crushing piece of news. If
Gary is extradited, his hopes will rest on being speedily repatriated so
that he can serve his sentence near his family in Britain.
Having been accused of causing some £500,000 of damage to the various
computer systems he infiltrated, however, Mr Sickler says he is sure to be
ordered to pay a substantial sum by way of restitution in addition to being
Now unemployed, he is unlikely to have funds to cover a huge penalty - and
under the U.S. prisoner treaty transfer programme, foreign prisoners cannot
be sent home until their fines and compensation are paid off.
Kafkaesque indeed. Speaking for the first time about the case this week,
Scott Stein, the former assistant U.S. attorney who launched the prosecution
in 2002, admitted that even he feels some sympathy for Gary.
Now a Microsoft lawyer, Mr Stein is the official accused of 'leaning on'
Gary at the U.S. embassy in London, in an effort to get him to agree to go
to Virginia voluntarily and plead guilty.
He denies putting him under undue pressure, saying: 'I'm not sure what "lean
on" means. The UK prosecution system is different from ours. He was treated
no differently than [he would have been] when it comes to plea offers in the
It was Scott Stein's ex-boss, Paul McNulty, then U.S. Attorney for Eastern
Virginia, who memorably accused Gary of carrying out 'the biggest military
hack of all time'.
This week, Mr McNulty, who later rose to the post of Deputy Attorney General
in the Bush administration and is now employed by a prominent
Washington-based law firm, declined to comment on the case.
While Mr Stein remains adamant that Gary should be extradited and punished,
however, he has clearly moderated his own views.
He now accepts that he was 'not a professional criminal' and simply 'got
lost in what he was doing'.
He also acknowledges that Asperger's syndrome appears to have been a
significant factor in Gary's actions - something that was unknown when the
We can only pray that the British authorities dealing with this wretchedly
mishandled saga will come to their senses, and never force this emotionally
fragile man on to that Washington-bound plane.