Solitary confinement cell in a New York state prison.

Solitary confinement cell in a New York state prison.

In preparation for Human Rights Day tomorrow, groups opposing solitary confinement have sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, urging them to grant the request of the UN’s main torture expert for more information on and access to New York’s prisons.

Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has repeatedly asked the United States State Department to visit American prisons, specifically in California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania as well as New York, stating that his “main concern is the use of solitary confinement.”

Méndez has long condemned the use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and jails as torture. In a report to the General Assembly of the UN in August 2011, Méndez called this practice inhumane punishment, and concluded that 15 continuous days in solitary must be the limit before harmful physical and psychological effects take place. The United States has kept incarcerated people in isolation for far longer; some have been in continuous solitary confinement for years or even decades.

Méndez said specifically that he needs to be able speak to those currently held in solitary confinement during the visits in order to understand “who is put into isolation and why,” as well as the conditions of punitive segregation. Méndez  has emphasized that while no one should be held in isolated for a prolonged period of time, certain vulnerable categories of incarcerated people should never be put into solitary, including pregnant women, people with mental illness, and children.

In his report to the UN General Assembly in August 2013, Méndez specifically condemned the “degrading conditions of detention” in New York state prisons. He further stated that under New York’s State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), incarcerated people could be in extreme isolation for an indefinite amount of time, because New York State does not place maximum limits on sentences of isolated confinement.

Prior to this report, Méndez had written to the United States government, urging it to investigate and prevent mistreatment of those incarcerated in solitary confinement, highlighting three specific cases of prolonged isolation. Méndez appealed to the State Department on the behalf of these three men – William Blake, Stephen Poole, and Kenneth Wright – citing their difficulty in obtaining adequate medical attention as well as the severe mental and physical health risks involved in keeping people in solitary confinement indefinitely.

Méndez alleged both in his letter and the report to the General Assembly that these practices in New York prisons constituted torture, citing evidence that many people are held in isolation for years without an end date, and that many end up with solitary confinement sentences for committing nonviolent offenses.

In its letter John Kerry last week, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) urged the secretary of State to provide the information requested by Méndez immediately. A letter to Andrew Cuomo urged the governor to facilitate the release of information, and of Méndez’s ability to enter New York’s solitary confinement units to conduct fact-finding.

“With Human Rights Day approaching,” both letters conclude, “we join in calling on you to take these steps to honor the humanity and dignity of New Yorkers suffering the torture of solitary confinement.”

CAIC, which brings together human rights, civil liberties, and religious organizations with formerly incarcerated people and family members of those in solitary confinement, will join the New York City Jails Action Coalition and American Friends Service Committee to host a vigil in Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square tomorrow at 4 PM “to protest the routine use of extreme and prolonged isolation in New York’s state prisons and city jails.”

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