Saturday, August 24, 2013

U.S. Urged to Abolish Use of Prolonged or Indefinite Solitary Confinement as Almost 200 California Inmates Enter Fifth Week of Hunger Strike

Nearly 200 inmates in California detention centres are now entering their fifth week of a hunger Juan E. Méndez strike against cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions

Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, yesterday urged the U.S. Government 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,” Mr. Méndez said in a news release, “and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture.”

Approximately 80,000 prisoners in the United States are subjected to solitary confinement.  Nearly 12,000 of those 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 United States 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 force-feed prisoners under certain circumstances, the U.N. Special Rapporteur 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 practice of solitary confinement and its harmful effects in the Americas and urged stronger regulation of its use. In a 2011 global report to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Méndez called solitary confinement a “harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010 as the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. He is a Professor of Law at the American University – Washington College of Law and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. Mr. Méndez has previously served as the President of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) until 2009, and was the U.N. Secretary-General Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide from 2004 to 2007, as well as an advisor on crime prevention to the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court, between 2009 and 2010.

(mew)(adapted from a UN press release)

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