UN Wants to Investigate California Prisons for Torture

Tuesday, October 22, 2013
UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez

The California prison strike is over, but United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez still wants to take a tour of the state’s solitary confinement facilities.

However, he’s not getting any further now than he did in May, just before thousands of prisoners began a 60-day strike protesting indefinite isolation that sometimes lasts for decades. Méndez asked the U.S. Department of State and Governor Jerry Brown for prison access after receiving a petition (pdf) from prisoners and organizations that included a request for on-site inspections and review by the UN.

The State Department told the Los Angeles Times they are considering his request and the governor’s office said they were unaware of it.

An estimated 10,000 Californian prisoners are kept in tiny isolation cells for 22-23 hours a day. More than 1,000 of these prisoners are in Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison, where the cells have no windows or direct access to sunlight.

As of 2011, more than 500 prisoners serving indeterminate terms in isolation had spent at least 10 years doing so. More than 200 had been isolated for 15 years and 78 for 20 years. Many of those in isolation have been identified by corrections authorities as prison gang members.

Méndez has called for an end to solitary confinement in the United States, which he likened to torture even if “applied for short periods of time.” While he would like a blanket ban on solitary confinement for all prisoners, he singled out for special consideration “juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.”

Méndez, himself a victim of torture in Argentina in the 1970s, is a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law.

The state Senate and Assembly Committees on Public Safety held a joint hearing October 9 to discuss prison isolation cells. According the Sharon Bernstein at Reuters, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano nodded affirmatively as prisoner advocates pleaded for legislation that would ban indefinite solitary confinement. But a wink and a nod are about all they got.

Governor Jerry Brown has displayed a conservative approach to myriad problems afflicting the state’s prison system. He has fought the courts for years over demands the state reduce overcrowding and tend to the physical and mental health needs of prisoners.

The governor is reluctantly negotiating a deal with lawmakers that will address these issues by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on rehabilitation and other services for inmates. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected for a second time California’s appeal of judicial rulings that demand a reduction in the prison population.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

U.N. Torture Investigator Seeks Access to California Prisons (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

U.N. Expert Says Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons Can be Torture (by Tom Miles, Reuters)

California Lawmakers Hold Hearing on Prison Solitary Confinement Policy (by Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)

UN Independent Expert Calls on US to Ban Prolonged, Indefinite Solitary Confinements (UN News Centre)

Amnesty International Condemns California Prisons’ Use of Indefinite Isolation (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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