An independent United Nations human rights expert called on the U.S. this month to stop the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.
Juan E. Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, referenced the Angola Three in his remarks condemning the practice. The Angola Three refers to three inmates sent to solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola Prison after the killing of a prison guard. Robert King spent 29 years in solitary before he was exonerated and released. Herman Wallace spent more than four decades in solitary before he was granted a new trial and released at age 71. Wallace died shortly thereafter from liver cancer. Albert Woodfox, who maintains his innocence, is still incarcerated.
“The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola Three clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law,” said Mendez.
Mendez has asked to visit U.S. prisons in California, Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania, but has not been able to schedule the visits, which must be cleared by the U.S. State Department as well as the state governors. Solitary Watch estimates that across the US there are around 80,000 prisoners being held in some form of solitary confinement on any given day. California in particular currently holds around 11,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades (Watch a video here). Prisoners are held for around 22 hours per day in tiny cells with no sunlight. If their stay is prolonged, they may experience many adverse psychological effects, including high rates of self-mutilation and suicide [PDF].
Mendez this week briefed the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee–it’s main social, humanitarian, and cultural body–that solitary confinement should never be indefinite or prolonged for any person. He also emphasized that under no circumstances should minors, people with mental disability, or pregnant or breastfeeding women be kept in solitary confinement.
In addition to the U.S., Mendez plans to visit several countries to investigate their prison systems, including Mexico, Thailand, and Georgia, among others.