A Glimpse at Life in Prison for the Marathon Bombing Suspect

The New York Times detailed life on the inside for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Devens Federal Medical Center, where Tsarnaev is kept. (Associated Press)

Devens Federal Medical Center, where Tsarnaev is kept. (Associated Press)

As Boston honors and remembers the victims and heroes of the Marathon bombing on the anniversary today, the New York Times took a moment, too, to check in on the isolated life of the alleged perpetrator of the attacks. The Times used court documents and a bit of a phone conversation with his family to draw a portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he now spends his days:

He cannot mingle, speak or pray with other prisoners. His only visitors are his legal team, a mental health consultant and his immediate family, who apparently have seen him only rarely.

He may write only one letter — three pages, double-sided — and place one telephone call each week, and only to his family. If he reads newspapers and magazines, they have been stripped of classified ads and letters to the editor, which the government deems potential vehicles for coded messages. He watches no television, listens to no radio. He ventures outside infrequently, and only to a single small open space.

That portrait reflects earlier reports, and it probably doesn’t inspire sympathy in the great majority of us. It is important to note, though, that the government doesn’t intend the restrictions on him as punishment. Like anyone else, Tsarnaev must be proven guilty at his trial, scheduled for November, before the government can offer punishments in proportion to his alleged crimes. Rather, the government argues that the restrictions are for public safety. They reserve this sort of treatment for those they suspect may communicate with other terrorists while inside prison. The Times scrutinized that argument, noting that “privately, federal officials say there is little of substance to suggest that Mr. Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother Tamerlan were anything but isolated, homegrown terrorists.”

But as in many cases of solitary confinement, the government also argues that Tsarnaev is kept alone for his own safety. And to the extent that his defense team and organizations like the ACLU have protested his restrictions, they’ve mostly focused on ways they might impact the administration of justice, rather than on his access to the outside world. Until the government eased certain restrictions on his lawyers, for instance, the ACLU worried that his defense team wasn’t getting enough access to their client.

The Times and other media are rightfully focusing most of their energy today day on honoring heroes and victims. But the uncomfortable presence of Tsarnaev in a federal prison medical facility remains relevant this week, too. For when he does eventually come to trial, it will be helpful to know the context of the year he spent essentially alone.