The use of solitary confinement in California prisons, can amount to “cruel punishment, even torture.” This is according to a recent news release from the Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in which the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, addresses the issue of solitary confinement in US prisons and specifically those in California.
The statement came as nearly 100 people in three California state prisons were engaged in day 47 of a prison hunger strike. The hunger strike began on July 8, with more than 30,000 prisoners in two thirds of California prisons refusing food in protest of long-term solitary confinement and inhumane conditions.
Méndez, who is a former political prisoner, asserts that prolonged isolation is cruel and inhumane, stating that “[e]ven if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture.”
The UN rights expert urges the US government to place restrictions on the application of solitary confinement to ensure that “solitary confinement is only imposed, if at all, in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and with established safeguards in place.”
Méndez further calls for an unconditional ban on solitary confinement of any length on children, people with disabilities, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and those serving life sentences or on death row.
Honing in on California’s continuing prison crisis, the UN expert expresses concern about about the brutal conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison, where “more than 400 prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for over a decade, and the average time a prisoner spends in solitary confinement is 7.5 years.” Of particular concern are the approximately 4,000 people who are held in Security Housing Units (SHU) on an indefinite or prolonged basis.
Referring to a District Judge’s recent approval of California’s request to force-feed prisoners, the torture expert states that “it is not acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.”
Méndez has in the past repeatedly addressed the matter of solitary confinement in the US. The release specifically notes his 2011 report to the UN General Assembly and “numerous communications to the Government” in which he calls on authorities to allow for an assessment of the country’s use of isolation by a UN expert.
In another noteworthy report, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council last year, Méndez finds that, in certain circumstances, solitary confinement qualifies as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” and even torture.
Following up on Méndez’ efforts, in June, a coalition of civil and human rights groups called on the US government to extend the special rapporteur a formal invitation to assess the country’s use of solitary confinement.
To date, the US government has said only that it is in the process of considering the request.
Concluding his recent statement, Méndez underscores his message to the US:
It is about time to provide the opportunity for an in situ assessment of the conditions in US prisons and detention facilities.”