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US Government to Go Before UN Committee Against Torture & Defend Solitary Confinement

Solitary Confinement

Solitary Confinement

During a periodic review of the country’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture, the United States is expected to go before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva and defend the use of solitary confinement.

On November 12 and 13, the committee will scrutinize President Barack Obama’s administration and its compliance with the treaty.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture defines [PDF] solitary confinement as “physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.” The UN has been particularly concerned about “prolonged solitary confinement,” which is a “period of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.” This is when “some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.”

Also, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern in 2011 that “super maximum security” prisons “impose solitary confinement as a normal, rather than an ‘exceptional,’ practice for inmates.”

The Committee has asked the US government to “please describe steps taken to improve the extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in “super-maximum security prisons”, in particular the practice of prolonged isolation.”

The US government, however, still maintains [PDF], as it did in 2011, that “there is no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States.”

In a response to the question posed by the committee, the US government submitted a written response that included this defense of solitary at supermax prisons (ADX).

Security requirements at the ADX mandate restrictive procedures for movement of inmates and physical interaction with staff. For security reasons, inmates in General Population spend most of their day in individual cells. They are not deprived, however, of human interaction. Inmates can speak with (but not touch) one another in the recreation yards, and can communicate with the inmates housed on either side of their cells. The Warden, Associate Wardens, Captain, and Department Heads perform weekly rounds so they can visit with each inmate. Correctional Officers perform regular rounds throughout all three shifts on a daily basis. A member of an inmate’s Unit Team visits him every day, Monday through Friday, except on holidays. Inmates receive regular visits from medical staff, education staff, religious services staff, and mental health staff, and upon request if needed. In addition, General Population inmates are permitted five non-contact social visits per month and two fifteen-minute phone calls. Inmates in less restrictive housing units are permitted even more social visits and phone calls. Inmates can also send and receive personal correspondence.

Essentially, the US government’s position on solitary confinement or “administrative segregation” is that it is not inhumane because inmates come into contact with staff members of the prison on a daily basis.

The US government additionally states in its response to the committee that the US Supreme Court has “held that a 30-day period of disciplinary segregation of prisoners from the general population does not give rise to a liberty interest that would require a full due process hearing prior to imposition of the punishment.”

In other words, it is not until fifteen days after “irreversible” effects of solitary confinement starts to occur that the US government believes an inmate should be able to challenge his or her confinement conditions.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), in its “shadow report” [PDF] to the committee, noted that the US “currently detains approximately 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in its jails, prisons and detention centers.”

Solitary confinement “disproportionately impacts prisoners of color and other vulnerable incarcerated populations.” For example, at Pelican Bay in California, “85% of the prisoners in solitary confinement are Latino.”

Prisoners with mental illness are “frequently confined” in these conditions as well, which exacerbates symptoms.

“Common psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement include a persistent and heightened state of anxiety, and paranoid and persecutory fears, as well as hallucinations, headaches, ruminations and irrational anger, violent fantasies, oversensitivity to stimuli, extreme lethargy, and insomnia. This mindset commonly persists long after prisoners are released from solitary confinement,” according to CCR.

Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Committee reviewed the US government’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Committee was concerned about the “continued practice of holding persons deprived of their liberty, including, under certain circumstances, juveniles and persons with mental disabilities, in prolonged solitary confinement and about detainees being held in solitary confinement in pretrial detention.”

The Human Rights Committee called for “strict limits on the use of solitary confinement, both pretrial and following conviction, in the federal system as well as nationwide, and abolish the practice in respect of anyone under the age of 18 and prisoners with serious mental illness.”

Between 2008 and February 2013, the US Government Accountability Office reviewed the use of solitary confinement and found that the “total inmate population in segregated housing units” had “increased approximately 17 percent—from 10,659 to 12,460 inmates.” [PDF]

This review found that the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had avoided or declined to conduct a review of the impact on inmates.

BOP has not assessed the impact of segregated housing on institutional safety or the impacts of long-term segregation on inmates. In January 2013, BOP authorized a study of segregated housing; however, it is unclear to what extent the study will assess the extent to which segregated housing units contribute to institutional safety…

The Federal Bureau of Prisons planned an “audit” of solitary confinement practices in 2013, but it is unclear what the findings of that “audit” were.

Finally, the “shadow report” [PDF] submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) indicates, “As a general matter, there is no federal or state statute categorically prohibiting the housing of juveniles or the mentally ill in conditions of substantial isolation.

“Rather, state and federal law continues to accept the appropriateness of solitary confinement for the vast majority of American prisoners.”

Picture from Henry Hagnäs licensed under Creative Commons

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."