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U.S. Must Support Progressive Changes to Prison Human Rights Standards

David Fathi,
Director, National Prison Project
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December 11, 2012

I’m writing from Buenos Aires, where I’m representing the ACLU at the Inter-Governmental Expert Meeting (IGEM) on the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Established in 1955, the SMRs are the leading international standards on protecting the human rights of prisoners. They’ve profoundly influenced the law in many countries, and have been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But important as they are, the SMRs need updating. Since they were promulgated nearly 60 years ago, there have been major developments in international human rights law, such as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There has been increased understanding of the special needs of vulnerable prisoners like women, juveniles, LGBT persons, and the elderly. And some important issues – such as the use of long-term solitary confinement – are simply not addressed by the SMRs as currently written.

That’s why the U.N. General Assembly asked the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime to review and revise the SMRs sothey “reflect recent advances in correctional science and best practices.” Earlier this year, an international group of experts, including the ACLU, met and recommended targeted changes to the SMRs. The ACLU endorses these recommendations and will be advocating for their adoption in Buenos Aires.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s response to the SMR review process has been disappointing. It has characterized the SMRs as “a valuable set of general rules by which to manage correctional systems and facilities,” disregarding their status as the leading international standard on the human rights of prisoners. It has urged the IGEM to “approach their responsibilities with a narrow focus,” and even suggested that, because of the global fiscal crisis, “now might not be an optimal time to open this for discussion.”

On Friday, the ACLU sent a coalition letterto Secretary of State Hillary Clinton , urging the U.S. to engage constructively with the review process and to support progressive revisions to the SMRs. Appended to the letter is a statement by the ACLU urging revisions to provide more robust protections against the use of long-term solitary confinement. In particular, the ACLU calls for a presumptive 30-day limit to solitary confinement.

As this historic review gets underway, the eyes of the world are on the U.S. – the country that has a larger prison population, a higher incarceration rate, and more people in solitary confinement than any other. Let’s hope that this time our government will step up, not step away.

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