UN Torture Expert Calls for an End to Solitary Confinement

by Andy Worthington

On Tuesday, Professor Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities,” as a UN news release explained. Presenting his first interim report (PDF) on the practice to the UN General Assembly (which was published in August), Professor Méndez noted that the use of solitary confinement was “global in nature and subject to widespread abuse,” as the news release also explained.

An abhorrence of solitary confinement is central to my work — both for its inherent cruelty and because it is a form of torture — and I was delighted to read Professor Mendez’s comments, as I had the pleasure to meet him in January at an event on the future of Guantánamo and accountabiity for torture at the American University Washington College of Law, where he is a Visiting Professor of Law, when he delivered a powerful critique of the use of torture, and the need for the absolute ban on its use to be upheld.

Professor Mendez’s opinions are important, not just because he is a survivor of torture in Argentina, but because much of the solitary confinement in the world’s prisons is taking place in the United States, where he is currently based. Back in January, I thought how appropriate it was, given US history under the Bush administration, that the UN Rapporteur on Torture was based in America, and I remain convinced that it is appropriate, because, of course, lawyers in the Bush administration cynically and inappropriately attempted to redefine torture, and the use of torture was approved by senior officials, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld — and also, of course, because President Obama has failed to hold any of his predecessors accountable for their crimes.

This year, Professor Méndez was refused permission to make a private visit to Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of leaking war documents, diplomatic cables and military files relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, which have all been released by WikILeaks. He told reporters on Tuesday that he he would be “releasing a report on Manning’s detention in the coming weeks,” and also stated, “On the one hand he is no longer in solitary confinement, although he spent something like eight months in solitary confinement. But when he was moved to Fort Leavenworth his regime changed.” He added, “On a daily basis he does communicate and socialize with other inmates in his same category which is a big improvement over the first 8 months.”

He also said that he was “following developments in the case closely, despite being refused a confidential meeting” with Manning. The Defense Department, he said, “agreed to let him visit Manning but would not guarantee the conversation would be private,” and as he explained, “Under the rules of the Special Rapporteur and the rules of all the special procedures, that is a condition that we cannot accept.” he added, “I nevertheless told Mr. Manning through his council that if he still wanted to see me I would make an exception, but he also chose not to waive his right to have a private conversation with me.”

Although it was disappointing that Professor Méndez was unable to meet privately with Bradley Manning, his report on solitary confinement last week provided another reason why it is appropriate that the UN Rapporteur on Torture is based in the US — because solitary confinement in America’s prisons is a huge problem,  and also, of course, because Guantánamo — another prison where solitary confinement has been the norm, rather than the exception — remains open. In his report, Professor Méndez explained that, referring to Guantánamo, experts found that, “although 30 days of isolation was the maximum period permissible, some detainees were returned to isolation after very short breaks over a period of up to 18 months.”

Although solitary confinement in America’s domestic prison system is generally not discussed widely, it has attracted mainstream attention this year through the hunger strikes that have taken place in California, initiated by prisoners in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU), where some prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for decades (as discussed in my articles here, here, here and here).

Addressing the UN General Assembly, Professor Méndez said, “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit … whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique.” Stating that “the practice could amount to torture,” as the UN news release stated, he also said, “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”

He also explained, as the UN news release stated, that “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition,” and he cited scientific studies, which have established that “lasting mental damage” can be caused after just a few days of total isolation.

In addition, he made a point of stating, “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”

He added that solitary confinement “should be used only in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible,” as the UN news release explained. “In the exceptional circumstances in which its use is legitimate, procedural safeguards must be followed. I urge States to apply a set of guiding principles when using solitary confinement.” Later, he stated that these circumstances “could include the protection of inmates in cases where they are gay, lesbian or bisexual or otherwise threatened by prison gangs.”

The UN news release noted that, although there is “no universal definition for solitary confinement,” Professor Méndez “defined it as any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others, except guards, for at least 22 hours a day,” and he specifically noted that, in the US, “an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 individuals are being held in isolation,” which may be a low estimate, as it seems to refer only to those in superman prisons, and. as Kevin Gosztola explained in July, in an article for FireDogLake, “Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.”

Warning of “an increased risk of torture” in cases of solitary confinement “because of the absence of witnesses,” he also noted that some prisoners were “held in solitary confinement facilities for years, without any charge and without trial, as well as in secret detention centres,” citing his home country, Argentina, where “a prevention of violent behaviour programme consists of isolation for at least nine months and, according to prison monitors, is frequently extended,” Kazakhstan,  where solitary confinement “can last for more than two months,” China, where an individual sentenced for “unlawfully supplying State secrets or intelligence to entities outside China” was “held in solitary confinement for two years of her eight-year sentence,” and, returning to the US, Louisiana, where two prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for 40 years.

In conclusion, Professor Méndez told the General Assembly, “Social isolation is one of the harmful elements of solitary confinement and its main objective.” He added that it “reduces meaningful social contact to an absolute minimum,” also noting that a significant number of those held in solitary confinement would “experience serious health problems regardless of specific conditions of time, place, and pre-existing personal factors.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.

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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.