U.N. Human Rights Expert Urges U.S. to Limit Solitary Confinement

New York, N.Y., Nearly one year ago Amnesty International (USA) declared that the solitary confinement of more than 3,000 California inmates in two prisons is tantamount to “cruel, degrading and inhuman” conditions that violate international standards. The human rights organization called on authorities to scale back use of solitary confinement.

On Aug. 23, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, joined the call. “I urge the U.S. government to adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances,” he stated.  Jim Luce has previously interviewed Juan for The Huffington Post (link).

Press ConferenceU.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez. UN photo/Mark Garten

He further implored U.S. authorities to place an absolute ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, inmates with disabilities, female inmates who are pregnant or breastfeeding infants, as well as those serving life sentences or on death row.

This statement came as more than 100 California inmates have engaged in a hunger strike since July 8 to demand an end to a policy of housing inmates believed to be associated with gangs in near-isolation for years.

Méndez, a law professor at the American University and co-chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, added that solitary confinement often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation—even for to those confined for short periods. Furthermore, when suffering is severe, this form of punishment “even amounts to torture.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council appointed Méndez as the special rapporteur in November 2010. He serves as an independent investigator—unattached to any government. In that capacity, he urged U.S. officials to apply solitary confinement only in “exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and with established safeguards in place.”

In its report, Amnesty International urges authorities in California to:

• Limit the use of isolation units so that solitary confinement is imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behavior constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others.

• Improve conditions for all prisoners held in isolation units, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most restrictive custody levels.

• Allow prisoners in isolation units to make regular phone calls to their families.

• Reduce the length of the Step Down Program to allow prisoners to emerge from isolation, and provide meaningful access to programs where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.

• Immediately remove from isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in Security Housing Units.

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Nigel Roberts
Nigel Roberts is the Communications Committee Chair of the J. Luce Foundation. He's also a communications consultant and freelance writer. His clients have included (now retired) U.S. Congressman Ed Towns.

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