The Special Rapporteur’s Thematic Report and Follow-Up on Solitary Confinement
Read the Special Rapporteur’s Report on Solitary Confinement here! The official UN press release calling for ban of solitary confinement in most cases and a webcast of the Special Rapporteur’s press conference at the UN are also available.
Special Rapporteur Juan E. Méndez presented his thematic report on solitary confinement to the United Nations General Assembly on October 18, 2011. He undertook this study because he found the practice of solitary confinement to be global in nature and subject to widespread abuse. Based on the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement, the SRT defined solitary confinement as the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. The SRT further defined prolonged solitary confinement as isolation for more than fifteen days, based on studies that show that the effects of solitary confinement may be irreversible after this period.
The SRT concluded that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and should, therefore, be prohibited. He also found that solitary confinement of any duration constitutes per se cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or even torture, when applied to juveniles or persons with mental disabilities. Additionally, he found that solitary confinement applied during pre-trial detention or as a punishment may also constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or torture. Solitary confinement should be used only in very exceptional circumstances as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible, in observance of minimum safeguards and guarantees.
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
The Special Rapporteur’s work on solitary confinement has had a significant impact on shaping advocacy efforts and policy discussions and developments in the United States. Aside from the Special Rapporteur’s contributions to Congressional Hearings on Solitary Confinement, which are detailed below, the Special Rapporteur has continued to engage in public discussions on the topic, such as this Democracy Now! Roudntable on the solitary confinement of aging political prisoners in the US, and this PBS Newshour Special on the solitary confinement of juveniles at Rikers Island prison in New York.
In October of last year, the Special Rapporteur traveled to California to meet with civil society and the families of prisoners held in prolonged solitary confinement, in the aftermath of the hunger strike undertaken by prisoner at California’s Pelican Bay facility. In California, the Special Rapporteur followed-up on his statements from an August 2013 press release, in which he expressed particular concern about “the approximately 4,000 prisoners in California who are held in Security Housing Units for indefinite periods or periods of many years, often decades.” The Special Rapporteur spoke on a panel with civil society advocates organized by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and during an event at the University of California Berkeley. The visit was widely covered by the media, such as the Los Angeles Times, and the Special Rapporteur discussed the situation in California at length in an interview for the Huffington Post Live.
SECOND CONGRESSIONAL HEARING ON SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
On Tuesday, February 25, The Special Rapporteur attended and submitted a written statement for a Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, during which Senate leaders echoed his call for a ban of the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, persons with mental disabilities, and pregnant women. The hearing followed a February 19 settlement between the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the New York State Department of Community Corrections (DOCCS), in which the state agreed to end the practice of solitary confinement for the same group of vulnerable persons barring exceptional circumstances. The hearing, entitled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences,” presented an important opportunity to shed light on the serious human rights abuses associated with the ongoing practice of long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and detention centers.
Prior to attending the hearing, the Special Rapporteur joined members of the NRCAT, including family members, survivors, the ACLU, and other human rights activists for a press conference intended to shed light on the serious human rights abuses associated with the ongoing practice of long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and detention centers.
SOURCEBOOK ON SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
The Special Rapporteur wrote an introduction for the Spanish-language edition of the Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, which was published in May 2014.. The Sourcebook, which was initially published in English in 2008, is intended to serve as a guide to policy-makers and prison managers “to put in place safeguards and mechanisms to limit the use of solitary confinement and to mitigate its harmful consequences.” The new Spanish-language edition of the Sourcebook, featuring the Special Rapporteur’s introduction, is available here. The Sourcebook is also available here in English, Chinese, Russian, and French.
STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF ELIMINATING DESIGNS THAT FACILITATE TORTURE AND ILL-TREATMENT
In April 2014, the Special Rapporteur issued a statement in support of the NGO Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility’s (ADPSR) call for an end to designs that facilitate torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In his statement, the Special Rapporteur endorses ADPSR’s petition to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit the design of spaces intended for prolonged solitary confinement, explaining that such a prohibition would be “a welcome step in advancing respect for human rights within civil society.” The Special Rapporteur explained that the design of prison environments can in general help meet human rights standards but that in some extreme cases, design may actually facilitate abuse. He elaborated that architects participate in shaping the experience of people in detention, and can therefore play a meaningful role in resolving the human rights problems caused by the practice of solitary confinement by prohibiting the design of spaces that leading to such cruel, inhuman, or degrading conditions. The Special Rapporteur’s full statement is available here, and a link to theADPSR’s ethics petition is available here and via www.change.org.
LEGAL OPINION TO THE SUPREME COURT OF BRAZIL
In June 2013, the Special Rapporteur presented a legal opinion on solitary confinement to the Supreme Court of Brazil. In the opinion, the Special Rapporteur highlighted his findings that solitary confinement can lead to severe pain and suffering that can amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, or even torture. He reiterated his position that the use of solitary confinement should be abolished or, at least, be only accepted in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort and for as short a time as possible. The Special Rapporteur further explained that in all cases, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, its use as punishment, and its application to persons with mental disabilities or juveniles should be completely prohibited.
With regards to Brazil, the Special Rapporteur provided:
“[The use of] RDD in Brazil, which provides for the isolation of detained person in an individual cell for up to 360 days, without prejudice to extensions of similar length for new offences and up to one sixth of the prison term, constitutes solitary confinement . . . The RDD in Brazil may constitute a violation of Brazil’s international obligation pursuant to the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for various reasons. Accordingly, the RDD is a clear example of prolonged solitary confinement, it allows for the use of solitary confinement as punishment, and it allows for its application during pre-trial detention.”
On March 12, 2013, in collaboration with the ATI and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the SRT appeared as an independent expert in the first ever hearing on Solitary Confinement in the Americas during the 147th session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR endorsed the SRT’s recommendations, and on April 5, 2013 issued a press release and annex, urging member states of the Organization of American States to comply with the recommendations, and to adopt concrete measures prohibiting the use of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, and the use of solitary confinement on juveniles and persons with mental disabilities.
A video of the hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is also available here: