A teenager in solitary confinement at Montana State Prison has been subject to such brutal treatment that the American Civil Liberties Union today called upon a U.N. expert on torture to intervene on his behalf. “The conditions of Robert’s confinement are so appalling that they flout universally recognized human rights standards, including his absolute right to be free from torture and other inhumane forms of treatment,” said Steven Watt, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program.
The prisoner known as “Robert Doe,” who recently turned 18, has a history of childhood abuse, and has been diagnosed with PTSD and other mental illnesses. He was first jailed for assault at the age 15, and sent to Montana’s adult maximum security prison when he was 16. Since then, according to the ACLU, he has been “tasered, pepper-sprayed, stripped naked in view of other inmates, deprived of human contact and disciplined through tortuous ‘behavior modification plans’ that deny him proper bedding, clothing and recreation.” For nearly a year, he has been in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in the prison’s segregation unit.
In December, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana and the Montana Department of Corrections over Robert’s treatment. Today, the state and national ACLU sent a letter to Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. The letter asked that Nowak immediately review Robert’s case and “advise Montana state prison officials to refrain from subjecting him to inhumane conditions of confinement and treat him in a manner consistent with applicable international human rights laws.”
The ACLU doesn’t often appeal to U.N. special rapporteurs, experts who work under mandates from the the U.N. Council on Human Rights to investigate and monitor human rights abuses. The fact that it took such action today suggests not only the seriousness of this particular case, but also its urgency: Robert has already tried to kill himself twice in solitary by biting into the veins on his arms. He may not survive long enough to see his lawsuit resolved.
The section of the ACLU’s letter describing Robert’s “Conditions of Confinement” is reproduced in full here because it depicts an extreme, but not unique version of what happens in lockdown units across the United States. Remember that Robert endured this treatment while he was a juvenile, and severely mentally ill. If this isn’t torture, what is?
While in the SHU [Secure Housing Unit], Robert has been subjected to prolonged periods of isolated confinement and sensory deprivation. He is unable to receive phone calls or visits from family or friends. In accordance with policies implemented by the Montana Department of Corrections, only after he maintains one year of clear conduct will Robert be permitted contact with the outside world; one visit per month and one 15-minute phone call per month to immediate family members.
To date, Robert has spent almost ten months in isolation, deprived of normal, social interactions with his family and even other inmates. Apart from the times when he showers or spends in recreation, Robert is confined to his cell. His recreation time consists of walking alone in a small, concrete–enclosed caged pen, with only a small area open to the outside for fresh air and sunlight. His interaction with prison staff is minimal, and interaction with other inmates is virtually nonexistent.
In SHU, Robert is deprived of personal property and provided with only the minimum of canteen items. Every meal is delivered to his cell and he eats on his own. He is not permitted to apply for prison jobs or to engage in hobbies. He is also denied access to educational and recreational opportunities that other inmates enjoy.
While detained in MSP, Robert has been subjected to conditions of imprisonment that have caused him to relive his childhood trauma. Robert has twice attempted suicide by biting through the skin on his wrist, puncturing a vein with his teeth and then spraying his blood on the window and walls of his cell. Despite his history, these recent suicide attempts and the overall fragile state of his mental health, Robert is not provided with adequate mental health treatment; it is rudimentary at best. It consists of a mental health staff member walking through the unit once a week. During these rounds, the staff member knocks on each cell door and asks if the inmate has any mental health concerns. If he believes he does, he is forced to relay his mental health concerns by shouting from behind the cell door, within hearing range of other inmates and no allowance for confidentiality.
Moreover, while in the SHU, if Robert exhibits conduct that prison staff deems unacceptable, he may be subjected to a BMP [Behavior Modification Plan]. Since arriving at Montana State Prison, Robert has been placed on a BMP at least six times.
In accordance with DoC practice, the first step of a BMP lasts at least 48 hours. During this phase, Robert is virtually stripped naked, except for a short gown which provides minimal coverage and warmth. He is then placed in a bare, padded cell that is constantly illuminated. There is no running water in the cell and a hole in the floor serves as a toilet. Robert is provided with a security mattress and blanket for sleeping, which is almost impossible given the brightness of the cell. Robert receives minimal water and is only allowed to eat NutraLoaf, a food substitute comprised of different ingredients mixed together.
If Robert maintains what prison staff consider good behavior over this initial 48-hour period he progresses to the second phase of the program. Although housed in isolation in the same illuminated cell, during this phase, Robert is given regular prison clothing and a pillow. If he maintains good conduct for a further 24 hour period, Robert then progresses to phase three; water is turned on in his cell and he is given regular meals and regular bedding materials. While the BMP is in effect, if Robert breaks any of the prescribed rules during these three phases or even after returning to solitary confinement, the BMP is implemented commencing at phase 1 until he maintains the requisite period of good conduct. BMPs can be in place for 6 months at any one time….
The United States is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the U.N. Convention on Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The United States is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). All four prohibit the treatment to which our client has been and continuesto be subjected….
The rest of the letter can be read on the ACLU’s site.