HRC Goes to Washington DC

On Tuesday June 19th, members of HRC submitted this document to the Subcommittee hearing on Solitary Confinement in Washington, DC - Link TV is supposed to air the hearing on Thursday June 21st.   

TO: Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Graham

As described below and in other submissions presented to this subcommittee, the austere, abusive, dehumanizing conditions of solitary confinement fit the legal definition of torture articulated in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment[2] and are strictly prohibited under international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution.  The absolute prohibition on torture is recognized as a jus cogens, or peremptory norm of international law that is binding on all governments.[3]  No treaty or domestic statute can supersede this prohibition.[4] The prohibition against torture is subject to universal jurisdiction and obligates governments to apprehend and bring to justice perpetrators wherever they are to be found.[5]
            The Committee Against Torture, European Court of Human Rights, and Inter-American Court of Human Rights have all stressed that solitary confinement “should be ‘an exceptional measure of limited duration’ that is subject to strict judicial review both when it is applied and when it is prolonged.”[6] This position was endorsed in the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement that was adopted in December 2007 at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium, which declared that “[a]s a general principle solitary confinement should only be used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible and only as a last resort.”[7] The statement emphasized that when solitary is imposed it should be done in a manner that “raises the level of meaningful social contacts for prisoners” via the provision of meaningful activities in and out of their cells, social interactions with other prisoners, more visits from family and community members, as well as in-depth discussions with psychologists, psychiatrists, and religious personnel.[8]
            The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Juan Mendez, recently submitted a report to the General Assembly on solitary confinement that resoundingly affirms the position that U.S.-style supermax units are criminal under international law.[9] Noting his opinion “that all human rights standards are subject to the norm of ‘progressive development,’ in that they evolve in accordance with emerging new features of repression,”[10] the report states that “the social isolation and sensory deprivation that is imposed by some States does, in some circumstances, amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and even torture.”[11] Clarifying just what circumstances rise to the level of a violation of international human rights law, the Special Rapporteur declared that punitive or prolonged solitary confinement constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in all instances. When imposed “for the purpose of punishment,” solitary confinement “cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution for criminal behavior,” in violation of the CAT.[12] In addition, Mendez found that “any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and called on the international community to adopt such a standard and impose “an absolute prohibition on solitary confinement exceeding 15 consecutive days.”[13]
In addition to being an unconscionable and illegal violation of human rights and constitutional law, solitary confinement fails to achieve its stated objectives of improving prison security and public safety. Counter to the claim that solitary confinement improves security, decreases violence, or produces any significant positive outcomes is that “there are no credible or convincing data” supporting such an assertion.[17] In stark contrast to the “massive body of evidence” documenting the suffering caused by solitary confinement, there is an “absence of documentation” supporting claims that the practice achieves its stated objectives.[18] That there is an absence of any data to support the hypothesis that solitary confinement reduces violence and improves security is further confirmed by the emerging trend in certain states to reduce the solitary population as a cost-saving measure, disproving the fraudulent claims of prison officials that these units are needed to preserve “order” and “security.” To the contrary, extant research and analysis strongly suggests that the use of solitary confinement is counter-productive in regard to reducing violence and positively reforming antisocial behaviors.

  1. Holding further hearings in Washington, D.C. and in the home districts of individual representatives and senators that feature the testimony of current and former prisoners, their families, civil and human rights organizations, and other relevant experts and advocates. These hearings must directly confront the debilitating psychological impact of solitary confinement and its use as a tool of terror and repression.
  2. Creating a commission to investigate torture and other ill-treatment within state and federal prisons.  This commission shall be shaped by prisoners and their families and focus on the voices and experiences of those whom have survived solitary confinement torture. The commission must be granted the authority to subpoena government officials and prison officials and records. Periodic progress reports will be mandatory and the commission must be granted the authority to bring criminal charges as soon as the evidentiary threshold for such is met.  All records of the commission’s investigation shall be made available upon request in order to satisfy the requirements of transparency.
  3. Introducing legislation to prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in county, state, and federal prisons, including military prisons, and solitary confinement should be identified as a prima facie statutory violation of this law.
  4. These recommendations should be construed as part of a broader process of Truth and Accountability that seeks to abolish solitary confinement, other forms of torture, and mass incarceration. This process will only be effective if it is rooted in the leadership of prisoners and communities targeted by policies of mass incarceration.

[1] Nigel S. Rodley with Matt Pollard, THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW 81 (3d Edition 2009).
[2] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment art. 1(1), Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85 (defining torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”).
[3] Rodley, supra note 1 at 65-66.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 49.
[6] Jules Lobel, Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution, 11 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 115, 129-30 (2008).
[7] Rodley, supra note 1 at 407.
[8] Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Annex, U.N. Doc. A/63/175 (July 28, 2008).
[9] Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment U.N. Doc. A/66/268 (August 5, 2011) (Defining solitary confinement in ¶ 26 as “the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.”).
[10] Id. at ¶ 37.
[11] Id. at ¶ 20.
[12] Id. at ¶ 72 (Noting that “[t]his applies as well to situations in which solitary confinement is imposed as a result of a breach of prison discipline, as long as the pain and suffering experienced by the victim reaches the necessary severity.”).
[13] Id. at ¶ 76.
[14] Craig Haney and Mona Lynch, Regulating Prisons of the Future: A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement, 23 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 477, 531 (1997).
[15] “One of the Dirty Secrets of American Corrections”: Retaliation, Surplus Power, and Whistleblowing Inmates, 42 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 611 (2009).
[16] For coverage of the killing of John Carter see PA Prison Report May 7 (; PA Prison Report May 14 (; PA Prison Report May 21 (
[17] Haney & Lynch, supra note 14 at 534-35; See also, Jennifer R. Wynn and Alisa Szatrowski, Hidden Prisons: Twenty-Three-Hour Lockdown in New York State Correctional Facilities, 24 Pace L. Rev. 497, 514 (2004).
[18] Id. at 536.

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