From Guantanamo Bay to Pelican Bay, U.S. prisons under international scrutiny

Photo taken on  I-80 freeway on the pedestrian overpass near University Avenue by Facebook user Mindy Stone.

Photo taken on I-80 freeway on the pedestrian overpass near University Avenue by Facebook user Mindy Stone.

With hunger strikes now underway at U.S. prisons in Cuba and California, U.S. detention policies are once again in the global spotlight, being called a violation of international norms tantamount to torture.

Last week, an international body called on the United States to once and for all close the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which counts the U.S. as one of its 57 member states, adopted a resolution at its Annual Session in Istanbul, calling “for the permanent closing of this detention facility as soon as possible.”

Although generally very soft on the U.S. government and taking pains to avoid criticism of the overall policy of indefinite detention and the torturous force-feeding taking place at Gitmo, the resolution nevertheless reiterates the OSCE PA’s longstanding calls for the closure of this prison and “recommends an increased co-operation between Europe and the United States as regards the concrete implementation of the closing of Guantanamo.”

It was the fifth time since 2003 that the OSCE PA had called for the prison’s closure.

In introducing the resolution, its sponsor Lord Alf Dubs noted that President Obama has indicated that he still believes that Guantanamo should be closed. Dubs drew attention to the hunger strike taking place at Gitmo and noted that it is the responsibility of all countries that have nationals at Gitmo to receive these prisoners. He pointed out that the British government has indicated it would allow Shaker Aamer, a British national unjustly held for 11 years at Guantanamo, to return to the UK, but to this date the U.S. government has refused to release him.

Dubs further noted widespread international criticism of the Guantanamo prison camp, with the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting the profound damage to psychological health posed by indefinite detention, and UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay raising serious questions about the prison camp’s compliance with international law.

Notably, rather than calling out the U.S. for its human rights abuses, most delegates to the OSCE PA used the opportunity to obliquely praise the United States for its “commitment” to closing the prison camp, with only Belarus strongly criticizing the U.S. government for its failure to do so. (Watch the debate in the original floor language – including English, French and Russian – here.)

Nevertheless, the resolution was adopted overwhelmingly, with the U.S. delegation abstaining.

As this resolution was adopted, a video began going viral depicting the horrific practice of force-feeding at Guantanamo. Based on a leaked document which sets out the military instructions, or standard operating procedure, for force-feeding detainees, the four-minute film made by the human rights organization Reprieve depicts U.S. actor and rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), experiencing the procedure.

After four days on YouTube, the video had already received 2.5 million views.

Currently, more than 100 Gitmo detainees are on hunger strike, with more than 40 being force-fed twice a day in gruesome procedures that last up to two hours. Carlos Warner, a lawyer who represents several hunger strikers, told the Guardian in June: “The hunger strike grows for two reasons: the military’s refusal to negotiate with the men in a productive way and because the president has taken no action in spite of his words.”

The practice of force-feeding is at odds with international medical policy on prisoners’ right to refuse nourishment.

In 2006, the World Medical Association, an organization that represents physicians around the world, issued the Declaration of Tokyo, which states: “Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”

The American Medical Association has also said that the practice “violates core ethical values of the medical profession.”

Despite these grave concerns over the force-feeding going on at Guantanamo Bay, prison officials at Pelican Bay State Prison in California are now preparing to force-feed thousands of inmates who are on a hunger strike to protest prolonged solitary confinement, as well as other “medieval conditions” in the California prison system.

With originally 29,000 hunger strikers, about 12,000 prisoners being held in two-thirds of California’s 33 prisons have refused meals for the fourth consecutive day in a show of solidarity against conditions at Pelican Bay.

Denied telephone calls, contact visits and education, work or rehabilitation programs, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay are isolated for at least 22 and a half hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells.

Held under these conditions for more than a decade and some over 20 years, the SHU prisoners began striking on Monday and the protest spread. Californian officials instituted an official state response when the strike entered its fourth day, which includes aggressive monitoring of inmates’ health and possible force feeding.

The prisoners’ five demands include:

1. Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommendations and end long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Create and expand constructive programming.

As Amnesty International points out, the practice of long-term solitary confinement is in violation the United States’ international obligations:

While there may be instances where holding prisoners in isolation is appropriate and humane, the use of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement is a violation of the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment found in international human rights law. By violating this prohibition, U.S. authorities not only abuse the rights of prisoners, they undermine the human rights that protect all of us from abuse.

Nevertheless, “more than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units, where they are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in single or double cells, with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind,” Amnesty notes.

More than 500 prisoners have spent 10 or more years in the Pelican Bay SHU, with 78 in solitary more than 20 years. While California holds the most prisoners in solitary, the practice is widespread across the United States.

At prisons from Arizona to Illinois to Louisiana to Guantánamo, the U.S. holds “at least 25,000 inmates in isolation in supermax prisons,” reports Amnesty International.


To add your name to a petition in support of the California hunger strikers, click here.

To call for the closure of Guantanamo, click here.

Nationwide actions in support of the California hunger strike can be found at Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

For more information about solitary confinement see the Center Constitutional Rights and Solitary Watch.


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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: Facebook: Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at]

2 responses to “From Guantanamo Bay to Pelican Bay, U.S. prisons under international scrutiny”

  1. Catana says :

    I wish I could believe that international disapproval might bring about any change, but our great country is too superior to be affected by what others think. After all, we’re a bastion of democracy and justice, aren’t we?

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