Solitary Confinement as Torture: Some US Prisons Recognize the Problem, as California Inmates Ask the UN to Act

by Andy Worthington

Last July, when prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) in Pelican Bay State Prison in California embarked on a hunger strike to protest about the conditions in which they are held, I was pleased to find the time to wrote about it (which I did here, here and here — and again in October, here and here), as it had long been apparent to me that the abusive conditions to which foreign prisoners were subjected at Guantánamo — though shockingly innovative in terms of arbitrary detention — was otherwise a reflection of how America treats tens of thousands of domestic prisoners held in isolation, in some cases for decades.

This is barbaric, and clearly constitutes torture, and I was reassured to note that, three weeks ago, prisoners in California asked the United Nations to help them. As San Francisco Bay View explained in an article on March 21:

Comparing their conditions to a “living coffin,” 400 California prisoners held in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement petitioned the United Nations Tuesday to intervene on behalf of all of the more than 4,000 prisoners similarly situated [see here for the petition, and here for quotes from 22 of the petitioners].

“California holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other state in the United States or any other nation on earth. The treatment of these prisoners is barbaric and, numerous experts agree, amounts to torture,” [said] Peter Schey, who heads the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, [and] is lead counsel for the prisoners who have “joined together to petition the United Nations to intervene by conducting on-site investigations, permitting Red Cross visits, and ultimately ruling that California’s policy on isolated segregation amounts to torture and violates well-established international human rights norms.”

The petition, as the article described it, “calls for UN action against California’s prison administration and deplores the conditions of thousands of California prisoners,” who in Peter Schey’s words, are “being detained in isolated segregated units for indefinite periods or determinate periods of many years solely because they have been identified as members of gangs or found to have associated with a gang.” As the petition describes it, “The policy that has resulted in their prolonged detention does not require that they have actually engaged in any misconduct or illegal activity, or that they even planned” to do so.

Peter Schey also noted that, for the 400 petitioners, the lockdown for 23 hours a day in the SHUs and Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs or AdSegs),is designed to “destroy their mental and physical health and destroy them spiritually.” He added, “They live like prisoners held in a gulag, not a modern democracy.” Continue reading

Police in Puerto Rico Accused of Abuses

[Excerpt from Repeating Islands blog at]

Puerto Rico police have a history of abuse, politically repressive violence, and impunity

Charlie Savage and Lizette Alvarez (The New York Times) reported today (September 8, 2011) on the United States Justice Department’s denunciation of the Puerto Rico Police Department, underlining “a ‘profound’ and ‘longstanding’ pattern of civil rights violations and other illegal practices.” Here are excerpts here with a link to the full article below:

In a 116-page report that officials intend to make public Thursday, the civil rights division of the Justice Department accused the Puerto Rico Police Department of systematically “using force, including deadly force, when no force or lesser force was called for,” unnecessarily injuring hundreds of people and killing “numerous others.” The report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, says the 17,000-officer force routinely conducts illegal searches and seizures without warrants. It accuses the force of a pattern of attacking nonviolent protesters and journalists in a manner “designed to suppress the exercise of protected First Amendment rights.” Continue reading