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A section of the isolation unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California. (Photo: Amnesty International)

Rampant Use of Solitary Confinement in the US Constitutes Torture

Alexis Agathocleous


George Ruiz is 72 years old. For the past 30 years, he has spent every day alone — locked in a cramped, windowless cell inside the Security Housing Unit (SHU) first at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, then at Tehachapi prison. He is allowed out for only one hour per day to exercise – also alone – in another concrete cell. 

Ruiz is in the SHU not for any rule violation, but because other prisoners claimed he was affiliated with a prison gang.

Ruiz barely sees or communicates with his family, as he is not allowed telephone calls and his children live hundreds of miles from the remote prison. Scribbled drawings from Ruiz’s two-year-old great-grandson have been confiscated for supposedly containing “coded messages.”

Though he suffers from debilitating health issues, for years, Ruiz was told that the only way he could receive better medical care would be to inform on other prisoners, thereby putting himself and his family at great risk of violence — and no doubt landing someone else in the torture chamber called the SHU.

The United States would like the global community to believe that Ruiz’s experience is an aberration. Last week, as the U.S.’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture (CAT) was under review by the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, the U.S. delegation touted the country’s progress on reducing and limiting its use of solitary confinement.

In fact, Ruiz’s story is not uncommon — not at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California, where over a thousand prisoners are confined in the SHU (hundreds of them for more than a decade), and not in the U.S., where solitary confinement is used in every state, under all circumstances of incarceration, and against all prisoner populations.

Approximately 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the U.S.

The U.S. told the Committee Against Torture that federal law restricts the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, prisoners who are victims of sexual violence, and mentally ill prisoners, and that it prohibits the use of solitary if it is employed to discriminate against disabled persons. But in fact, across the U.S., any prisoner – regardless of age, gender, or physical or mental health – may be held in solitary – and they are. 

Every day, juveniles are held in isolation, which can be even more damaging to children than it is to adults. Juvenile facilities often disguise their use of solitary simply by using euphemisms: “time out,” “restricted engagement,” even “reflection cottages.”  Vulnerable LGBTI prisoners, immigration detainees, and prisoners with mental disabilities are all held in solitary confinement in both civil and criminal detention facilities across the country.

Despite U.S. claims to the committee that courts have interpreted the Constitution to prohibit solitary under certain circumstances, those limits that do exist apply only to specific facilities or specific states because they arose from specific lawsuit brought by prisoners. For example, in California, where George Ruiz is imprisoned, a federal court ruled in 1995 that the state may not place mentally ill individuals in solitary confinement. Still, California holds thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement, which is known to cause severe psychological harm, including mental illness, to all prisoners – not just particularly vulnerable prisoners. 



US clarifies position on torture

Another Pelican Bay SHU prisoner, Jeffrey Franklin, says that one of the worst challenges he has faced is “witnessing so many other SHU prisoners lose their minds,” listening to “incessant screaming, and noises, and incoherent speech.” In any event, the ruling has no impact whatsoever on any state other than California.

The reality is that use of solitary confinement in the U.S. is widespread and systematic, and it is routinely used in excess of 15 days—the point at which U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez states it can become torture.

It is not just that the U.S. has fallen short of its human rights obligations and misrepresented the facts to the Committee Against Torture; the federal government also maintains entire facilities that stand as stark proof of how uninterested it is in ending this torture. At the federal Administrative Maximum (ADX) prison in Colorado, more than 400 prisoners spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in concrete “boxcar” isolation cells. A former ADX warden called the facility “a cleaner version of hell.” Meanwhile, the federal government subjects some prisoners to “Special Administrative Measures,” sometimes pre-trial, which represent a particularly harsh form of solitary confinement.

Despite these longstanding and ongoing human rights abuses in our nation’s prisons, the United States delegation stood before the Committee Against Torture last week and insisted that the U.S. is doing a good job on solitary confinement.

The CAT review process also included an opportunity for human rights organizations to respond to the U.S.’s presentation. The Center for Constitutional Rights and California prisoners’ rights organizations submitted a detailed review of its failures under the Convention Against Torture and a full rebuttal of U.S. claims.

Meanwhile, we are in the midst of a landmark federal class action case challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Rather than wait for the courts to intervene, it is time for the United States to take its human rights obligations seriously, and take meaningful steps to end the use of solitary confinement.  

© 2021 MSNBC

Alexis Agathocleous

Alexis Agathocleous is a Center for Constitutional Rights senior attorney who represents California prisoners in their class action challenge to long-term solitary confinement.      

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