UN slams U.S. on torture, indefinite detention, youth imprisonment and solitary
The United States came under sharp criticism this week from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, who raised a number of objections regarding U.S. prison policies including solitary confinement, the treatment of juveniles in the justice system and the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo.
Mendez said on Wednesday that the terms under which the United States has invited him to visit the Guantanamo Bay detention center are unacceptable, urging the U.S. to reconsider restrictions on his visit including by allowing him unmonitored conversations with detainees.
“The invitation is to get a briefing from the authorities and to visit some parts of the prison, but not all, and specifically I am not allowed to have unmonitored or even monitored conversations with any inmate in Guantanamo Bay,” said Mendez.
He also noted that he has been kept waiting for two years to visit prisons in the United States to probe the use of solitary confinement but that he has been refused access. He has requested visits to federal prisons — ADX in Florence, Colorado, and the Manhattan Correctional Center — and state facilities in California, New York, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, but so far the government has blocked his visits to the federal facilities, and he is not willing to only accept visits to state penitentiaries. More than 80,000 people languish in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Tuesday, Mendez also condemned the U.S. for being the “only State in the world that still sentences children to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole,” noting that by imposing cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment against the most vulnerable members of society, the U.S. is in serious violation of international norms. There are 2,500 American citizens serving life in prison for crimes they committed as children, according to the Sentencing Project.
“The detention of children is inextricably linked – in fact if not in law – with the ill-treatment of children, owing to the particularly vulnerable situation in which they have been placed that exposes them to numerous types of risk,” Mendez said in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Mendez noted that the U.S. practice of imposing life sentences on children in cases of homicide violates international law on numerous fronts, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The UN expert noted that the deprivation of liberty of children is intended to be a measure of last resort, to be used only for the shortest possible period of time, only if is in the best interests of the child, and limited to exceptional cases.
“Failure to recognize or apply these safeguards increases the risk of children being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, and implicates State responsibility,” Mendez warned. He called for the adoption of “higher standards to classify treatment and punishment as cruel, inhuman or degrading in the case of children.”
In addition, the Special Rapporteur pointed out that inappropriate conditions of detention – including pretrial and post-trial incarceration as well as institutionalization and administrative immigration detention – exacerbate the harmful effects on children deprived of their liberty.
“Within the context of administrative immigration enforcement, it is now clear that the deprivation of liberty of children based on their or their parents’ migration status is never in the best interests of the child,” he added. “It exceeds the requirement of necessity, becomes grossly disproportionate and may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of migrant children.”
“The U.S. government’s policy of detaining large numbers of children harms kids and flouts international standards,” said Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch last summer. “Congress should be exploring alternatives to detention that other countries facing spikes in border crossings have used successfully.”
U.S. law allows Customs and Border Protection to detain children for a maximum of 72 hours but recent reports indicate that CBP is holding children for periods closer to ten days or two weeks. The children are then transferred to the Office for Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services, where they may be further detained.
“States should, expeditiously and completely, cease the detention of children, with or without their parents, on the basis of their immigration status,” Mendez said this week.