Solitary confinement under scrutiny in Senate
Tomorrow, the same day that the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is scheduled to vote on whether to impose sanctions on Russian officials for rights violations in Russian prisons, the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights is taking up an issue closer to home: the widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
The hearing, entitled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences,” is scheduled to include several witnesses, including prison officials, legal advocates and a former death row prisoner who spent years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit.
The Institute for Southern Studies notes that the hearing “comes on the heels of widespread prisoner hunger strikes that have made the use of solitary confinement a central issue.” Last year, a prisoner hunger strike at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison prompted a state-wide strike that gained international notoriety.
It also follows some rather outspoken criticism from the international community on the subject of solitary confinement, with Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, stating recently that lengthy solitary confinement can cause serious mental and physical damage and should be considered torture.
Mendez has proposed that all solitary confinement longer than 15 days be outlawed.
“It can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said.
Mendez has also specifically criticized the United States for its mistreatment of world-renowned prisoner of conscience Bradley Manning, the accused whistleblower who spent 11 months in solitary confinement at a military brig in Virginia and is now awaiting trial at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
Mendez has noted that Manning’s treatment violated international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture.
As Mendez told the Guardian newspaper:
I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.
In an open letter to President Obama, members of Congress and Pentagon officials last November, members of the European Parliament expressed concern that “Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and other abusive treatment tantamount to torture.”
Amnesty International, the ACLU and other human rights organizations have also taken up the issue of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Amnesty has launched a campaign specifically on behalf of the Angola 3, who have spent decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana.
“For nearly 40 years,” notes Amnesty,
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace have been held in solitary confinement, mostly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as Angola prison). Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, originally convicted of unrelated cases of armed robbery, were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972. Robert King, locked up for robbery, was also convicted of murder once he was in the prison. The most fortunate of the so-called “Angola 3,” his conviction was overturned in 2001, and he was released after 29 years of isolation.
Throughout their prolonged incarceration in Closed Cell Restriction (CCR) Woodfox and Wallace have endured very restrictive conditions, including periods of 23 hour cell confinement. Louisiana prison authorities have failed to meaningfully review the men’s continued isolation, simply rubberstamping the original decision to confine the men in CCR. Decades of solitary confinement have had a clear psychological effect on the men, and they both suffer from serious health problems caused or made worse by their years of close confinement.
In April, Amnesty International submitted a petition to the governor of Louisiana with over 67,000 signatures from individuals in 125 countries demanding that Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace be removed from long-term isolation. The governor, however, refused to meet with the delegation.
The ACLU has initiated a campaign to end prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons altogether, noting that it “is cruel and inhumane, costs too much and does nothing to make society safer.”
Studies show there are an estimated 20,000-25,000 individuals currently being held in solitary confinement in the United States.
The Senate hearing tomorrow, to be chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will examine the psychological and psychiatric impact on prisoners during and after their isolation, the higher costs of running solitary housing units, the human rights issues surrounding the use of isolation, and successful state reforms in this area.