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ACLU to United Nations: Solitary Confinement Violates Human Rights

A painting of a prisoner in a dark cell with his back to the viewer holding on to the prison bars
A painting of a prisoner in a dark cell with his back to the viewer holding on to the prison bars
Tanya Greene,
Advocacy and Policy Counsel,
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March 5, 2012

The ACLU’s Amy Fettig appeared before the U.N. Human Rights Council today to condemn the use of solitary confinement in the United States, following a written statement we submitted last month urging the Council to address this widespread violation of human rights. Also appearing today was Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has said before that solitary confinement can amount to torture and today called for a review and reduction of the use of solitary confinement as a matter of human rights. Mendez has also called on the United States to allow him to visit to investigate the use solitary confinement in U.S. supermax prisons; the U.S. has yet to respond.

The U.S. is unique among nations in its use of solitary confinement as an integral and regular component of its treatment of prisoners. Though there are no official numbers, a conservative estimate is that about 80,000 human beings are locked alonefor 22 hours or more each day in small, often windowless cells, isolated from any human contact (with the exception of very limited contact with prison staff), with no access to classes, job training, drug treatment, work or any other kind of rehabilitative programming. The mentally ill, disproportionately represented in solitary confinement, often become even more desperately ill, sometimes engaging in self-mutilation or even suicide. Even some healthy prisoners begin to exhibit symptoms of mental illness after a short time in solitary. Thousands of youth are also locked away in this manner each day, in both adult and juvenile facilities.

The use of solitary confinement in the U.S. is an urgent and pervasive problem deserving of the world stage and worldwide condemnation. The U.S. should implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur, but greater global attention and action will be needed to ensure this nation’s use of solitary confinement is consistent with international human rights standards.

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