By Bob Allen
The prolonged use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails violates a U.N. treaty the United States both signed and ratified against torture and other “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” a group of faith leaders said in a report to a committee set to review compliance in November.
Paula Dempsey, minister for partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists, and Carol Blythe, an Alliance volunteer and the former president, joined 17 other representatives of religious organizations in a “shadow report” to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
Shadow reports are documents submitted by non-governmental organizations to “shadow” official government reports that might omit certain information or present it in a more favorable light than the NGO sees it.
In its last review of U.S. compliance in April, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cited concerns including “the continued practice of holding persons deprived of their liberty, including, under certain circumstances, juveniles and persons with mental disabilities, in prolonged solitary confinement and about detainees being held in solitary confinement in pretrial detention.”
The shadow report, spearheaded by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, contends that prolonged prison isolation fits international definitions of torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for information, punishment, intimidation or for a reason based on discrimination.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that on a given day about 80,000 incarcerated adults and youth are held in solitary confinement in the United States. The practice involves isolating prisoners in closed cells with little human contact for 22 to 24 hours a day for periods of time ranging from days to decades.
Today few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement,” preferring classifications like “segregation” and “special housing.” Many of those in solitary are in super maximum or “Supermax” prisons, built to provide long-term, segregated housing for the “worst of the worst” criminals and inmates classified as a security risk or who pose a threat to national security.
African-Americans are more likely than other races to receive special-housing-unit detention and for longer periods. The NRCAT report says that’s in part because “security threat group” and gang-validation processes carry an “inherent racial bias” that raises questions about their legitimacy.
The faith leaders suggested five recommendations to improve the penal system:
1. Prolonged solitary confinement beyond 15 days in U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers should be banned. Where solitary confinement is used, its duration should be as short as possible and for a definite term that is properly announced and communicated.
2. The use of solitary confinement should be abolished for pretrial detainees, individuals with mental illness, youth under the age of 18, pregnant women and immigrants detained in civil detention.
3. Federal, state and local governments should be required to compile and publicly publish data on their use of solitary confinement, including racial-ethnic identity, mental health status, gender, age and duration of isolation.
4. An independent monitoring body should monitor conditions and statistics of those in solitary confinement.
5. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and state and local departments of correction should provide transitional services to ensure successful re-entry for those returning from incarceration.