UN torture expert condemns solitary confinement for juveniles, mentally disabled

[JURIST] Governments should ban solitary confinement [press release] for juveniles and prisoners with mental disabilities, a UN torture expert said Tuesday in a report to the UN General Assembly [official website]. UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez [official website] told the assembly members that governments should impose solitary confinement only in exceptional circumstances and for short periods of time. Mendez reported that solitary confinement, which he defined as "any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others (except guards) for at least twenty-two hours a day," is subject to widespread abuse, and described instances of extreme isolation practices in countries such as Kazakhstan, China and the US. Mendez emphasized that isolating prisoners, especially young or mentally disabled detainees, can have a particularly deleterious effect:

Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system. ... Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.
Mendez enumerated recommendations and guidelines, including procedural safeguards and regular reviews of prison practices, for governments to minimize or altogether abolish the practice of solitary confinement.

Poor prison conditions have drawn criticism worldwide. In July, jailed Iranian journalist Isa Saharkhiz [Iran Press profile] urged [letter, DOC, in Persian] UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Dr. Ahmad Shaheed to investigate prison conditions in Iran [JURIST report]. Saharkhiz alleged that the treatment of both political and general prisoners in Iran amounts to crimes against humanity [RFE/RL report]. At least 400 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison [official website] in California initiated a hunger strike [JURIST report] in June in protest of solitary confinement. Inmates of Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), a long-term isolation ward where one-third of the prison's population is held in solitary confinement, are the instigators of the strike, and most of the strikers from other prisons are inmates in solitary confinement. The Washington Supreme Court ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in January that holding death row inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely [JURIST report] is not an impermissible increase in the severity of punishment.

 

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