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.”
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • Syracuse.com reports that a New York judge has ordered that the state pay former prisoner Andre Melette $1,170 for the 39 days he spent in solitary confinement in the […]
“I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.” –Nelson Mandela, from his 1994 autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom Nelson […]
With the considerable attention focused on solitary confinement in California, Solitary Watch has observed inconsistent and widely varied statistics provided on the number of individuals housed in solitary in the state. We have reviewed and compiled statistics reported monthly by each prison through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) COMPSTAT reports (Computer Statistics […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • The Los Angeles Times publishes an editorial calling for lawmakers to apply Pelican Bay’s restrictions on solitary confinement at correctional facilities statewide. “As lawmakers prepare for the second half […]
This essay by John Jay Powers was published by the Colorado Independent, with the following introductory note by editor Susan Greene. Greene has corresponded with Powers for years, and included him in her multimedia investigation of solitary confinement, The Gray Box. “Jack Powers is an inmate in the federal Bureau of Prisons convicted of bank robbery and escaping from prison. […]
“This Draconian System of Punishment and Abuse”: An Interview with Former Political Prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur
The following is a partial transcript of an interview with Ray Luc Levasseur, a former political prisoner who spent over fifteen years in solitary confinement, primarily at USP Marion and ADX Florence. Levasseur was raised in Maine, born to a working-class family of Quebecois origin. He became politically radicalized about race and class at a […]
Former political prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur was raised in Maine, born to a working-class family of Quebecois origin. He became politically radicalized at a young age, first after serving a term of duty in Vietnam, and again after spending two years in a Tennessee prison. In 1986, Ray Luc Levasseur was convicted for militant activities conducted […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • The new ACLU report A Living Death describes the more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. The report was the subject of a New York […]
Last week, representatives of six nonprofit organizations critical of solitary confinement met in a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C., with the team hired to conduct an internal audit of the federal Bureau of Prisons’ controversial “segregation” policies. The idea for an audit came out of Senator Dick Durbin’s June 2012 Senate hearing on solitary confinement, […]
The excerpts that follow come from a declaration by Mahmud Abouhalima, who was convicted of taking part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (a charge he still denies). Sentenced to 240 years, he initially spent most of his time in the general population at federal maximum security prisons, where he was permitted […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • The ACLU reports on a landmark ruling by a Virginia federal court in a case brought by death row prisoner Alfredo Prieto. According to the story, District Court Judge […]
Karl ChuJoy is currently serving three years in solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York, for possessing a laptop computer. He writes in a letter to Solitary Watch: “I’ve been incarcerated since I was fifteen (15) years old. I am now thirty-six (36)…I’m halfway through these three (3) […]