For his first official investigation as the UN SpecialRapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment orPunishment, Juan Mendez chose to tackle the question of whether the use of solitaryconfinement amounts to torture. The use of solitary confinement, where prisonand jail inmates are locked in their cells alone for 22 to 24 hours a day withlittle to no access to sunlight, fresh air, and human contact, has become awidespread practice around the world since it was first developed in the US inthe early 1800’s. On October 18, after formally transmitting the results of his investigation to the UN General Assembly, Professor Mendez told theaudience at an event,co-sponsored by PHR, that in almost all circumstances, the social isolation andsensory deprivation inherent in solitary confinement constitutes cruel,inhuman, and degrading treatment, and often rises to the level of torture.
For the tens of thousands of people who are kept in solitaryconfinement in the USand throughout the world every day, this conclusion comes as no surprise. Thepsychological effects of solitary confinement, which can include anxiety,depression, hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, and self-harm, arewell-documented and long-lasting. Indeed, Prof. Mendez concluded that after asfew as 15 days in solitary confinement, some of these harmful effects canbecome irreversible.
The panelists at the event, “The Dangerous Over-Use ofSolitary Confinement,” echoed Prof. Mendez’s conclusions. Prof. Craig Haney, anexpert on solitary confinement, noted that the continued use of solitaryconfinement in the face of overwhelming evidence of the suffering it causesshows that “we have abandoned our commitment to rehabilitation,” while JamieFellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch, concluded that institutionsthat use solitary confinement “create their own monsters.”
Noting that “negative health effects can occur after only afew days in solitary confinement, and the health risks rise with eachadditional day spent in such conditions,” Prof. Mendez recommended that in allcases where an inmate is subjected to solitary confinement, there must be an“affirmative determination that it will not result in severe pain orsuffering.” Dr. Venters echoed this recommendation, saying that there is avital role for an independent medical authority in determining whether someonecan be subjected to solitary confinement.
While much has been written about the over-reliance onsolitary confinement in prisons and jails, little is known about its use in theUSimmigration detention system. Despite the fact that almost all of the 33,400detainees held in this system each night are housed in prison and jail-likesettings, immigration detention is not supposed to be punitive. In other words,immigration detainees are not held as punishment for committing a crime, butrather to ensure that they comply with the government’s decision about whetherthey will be allowed to remain in the US.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that members ofcertain populations, such as LGBT detainees and gang members, are routinelyseparated from the general population in immigration detention facilities forboth protective and punitive reasons. But US Immigration and CustomsEnforcement (ICE), the agency charged with overseeing the detention ofimmigrants, does not keep track of or even ask for statistics on the use ofsolitary confinement in the detention facilities run by its contractors.Without even this basic level of oversight, it is difficult to gauge the pervasivenessof this practice in our nation’s sprawling network of immigration detentionfacilities. But any use of solitary confinement whatsoever in a non-punitivedetention system is troubling. ICE should commit to tracking the use ofsolitary confinement among its contractors and implementing binding regulationsthat strictly limit its use to only those very few cases where it is absolutelynecessary to ensure safety within a detention center.