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"The numbers are staggering but even worse is the length of terms...It is not uncommon for people to spend 25, 30 years and even more in solitary confinement," says UN torture investigator Juan Méndez. (Photo: jmiller291/flickr/cc)

What Are They Hiding? UN Official Slams US for Limiting Access to Prisons

'Overuse of solitary confinement in the United States is cruel and shameful but hiding or denying it just makes it worse,' says ACLU

Deirdre Fulton

A United Nations investigator has accused the U.S. of blocking access to prisons—including state and federal facilities where an estimated 80,000 people are in solitary confinement and the military prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba—leading civil liberties experts to wonder, "Is the United States hiding something?"

Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday that for two years he has asked to visit federal prisons in New York and Colorado and state prisons in New York, California, and Louisiana, among others.

"It’s simply outrageous that it's taking such a long time to provide access to American detention facilities."
—Jamil Dakwar, ACLU

Meanwhile, UN human rights experts have asked to visit Guantanamo since 2004.

But responses from the U.S. have been unsatisfactory, Méndez said Wednesday.

He rejected the terms offered by U.S. authorities to visit Guantánamo, which he described thusly: "The invitation is to get a briefing from the authorities and to visit some parts of the prison, but not all, and specifically I am not allowed to have unmonitored or even monitored conversations with any inmate in Guantanamo Bay."

According to the Guardian, "Méndez said he had declined the invitation and asked the United States to replace it with one he can accept, to no avail."

Jamil Dakwar, head of human rights at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), criticized the U.S. for dragging its feet on the requests.

"It’s simply outrageous that it's taking such a long time to provide access to American detention facilities," he said. "This begs the question: is the United States hiding something?" he wrote to the Agence France-Presse news agency in an email.

U.S. officials have not been more forthcoming with access to prisons, where Méndez wants to monitor the use of solitary confinement.

"[I]n one of my last conversations they said that federal prisons were unavailable," he said. "I cannot accept an invitation to, say, go to a California prison if the federal prisons are off-limits to me."

According to the ACLU, more than 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day.

"The numbers are staggering but even worse is the length of terms...It is not uncommon for people to spend 25, 30 years and even more in solitary confinement," Méndez said.

As ACLU's Dakwar told Reuters: "Overuse of solitary confinement in the United States is cruel and shameful but hiding or denying it just makes it worse."


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