It is well-known that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country. While the US makes up only 5% of the global population, it holds a quarter of the world's prisoners. The US’s record on solitary confinement is just as egregious. There are approximately 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day across the country. Particularly vulnerable populations, such as people with mental illness, juveniles, pregnant women, LGBTI people, and immigrants in detention, are routinely and disproportionately held in solitary confinement.
In August 2011, the United Nations leading official on torture, Juan Mendez, published a game-changing report condemning the use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons around the world. Mendez reiterated what prison activists and researchers have known for years: that solitary confinement causes severe mental and physical suffering, and should be used in only the most exceptional of circumstances for as little time as possible. But Mendez also concluded that prolonged solitary confinement (which he defined as isolation that persists for over 15 days) amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment – and is properly analyzed under international human rights law as a form of torture. Mr. Mendez made clear in his report to the UN that solitary confinement poses an unacceptable risk of permanent psychological and physical harm to all prisoners.
The framing of prolonged solitary confinement as a form of torture represents a critical milestone in the growing movement against the practice. And so, CCR was delighted when Mr. Mendez agreed to serve as an expert in our ground-breaking federal class action lawsuit challenging prolonged solitary confinement at California’s Pelican Bay prison. CCR brought the lawsuit in support of the 2011 and 2013 prisoner-led hunger strikes that drew international attention to the plight of prisoners in isolation at Pelican Bay and have led to statewide protests, including recurring actions on the 23rd of every month.
In his capacity as our expert, Mr. Mendez visited Pelican Bay and met with prisoners there. He saw first-hand that more than a thousand people are warehoused in entirely concrete, windowless, 76-square-foot cells for almost 23 hours a day – and that hundreds of these prisoners have been subjected to these devastating conditions for decades. He heard from our clients that they haven’t been allowed to touch another human being in years, are deprived of face-to-face social interaction, and are denied phone calls to their families and friends as well as educational and rehabilitation programs. And he learned that prisoners are routinely placed and kept in solitary for flimsy evidence of “gang affiliation” – which can include possessing a book written by political prisoner George Jackson, or drawing Aztec and Mayan images.
In his scathing expert report describing what he saw at Pelican Bay, Mr. Mendez reached an unambiguous conclusion: the conditions at Pelican Bay, he writes, violate the Convention Against Torture, and are “contrary to the practices of civilized nations.”
California is starting to take steps in the right direction by reviewing its population in solitary. But prisoners across the US spend months, years, and sometimes decades in isolation units such as Pelican Bay. If, as Mr. Mendez has concluded, over 15 days in solitary constitutes torture, then the US prison system is torturing tens of thousands of people every day. This International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, let’s recommit to ensuring our government puts an end to this brutal practice.