UN independent expert calls on US to ban prolonged, indefinite solitary confinements

Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

23 August 2013 – As nearly 200 inmates in California detention centres approach their fifth consecutive week on hunger strike against cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions, a United Nations right expert today urged the Government of the United States to abolish the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.

“Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez said in a news release, “and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture.”

There are approximately 80,000 prisoners in the United States who are subjected to solitary confinement; nearly 12,000 are in isolation in the state of California.

“I urge the US Government to adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances,” Mr. Méndez said.

He added that the US should absolutely ban solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.

Since 8 July, thousands of prisoners detained in nine different prisons have gone on hunger strike to peacefully protest prison conditions. They are demanding a change in the state’s excessive use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure, and the subjugation of prisoners to solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time by authorities under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In California’s maximum security prison in Pelican Bay, more than 400 prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for over a decade, and the average time a prisoner spends in solitary confinement is 7.5 years. Often that time is spent in an 8-foot-by-12 foot cell lacking minimum ventilation and natural light. The prisoners remain in their cells for 22 to 23 hours per day, with one hour of exercise alone in a cement lot.

In the context of reported reprisals against inmates on hunger strike and a District Judge’s approval of Californian authorities’ request to engage to force-feed prisoners under certain circumstances, the UN Special Rapporteur also reminded the authorities that “it is not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.”

In March, Mr. Méndez called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the practise of solitary confinement and its harmful effects in the Americas and urged stronger regulation of its use.

In a 2011 global report to the UN General Assembly, Mr. Méndez called solitary confinement a “harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes.


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