Why The U.S. Won’t Let the U.N. Look Inside Its Prisons

After a half-decade and a mandate by the U.N. to investigate solitary confinement practices, U.N. torture rapporteur Juan Mendez had to find a backdoor into an American jail. Today, his findings are released in a report.

In 2010, Juan Mendez was appointed Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Degrading and Inhumane Treatment by the United Nations. His mandate is wide in size and scope—to expose and document torture wherever it exists on the planet today.

Since the beginning of his mandate Mendez has made criticizing the overuse of solitary confinement a priority. In 2011, he issued a report stating that 22 or 23 hours a day alone in a prison cell for more than 15 days at a time can cause permanent, lasting psychological damage and can constitute torture.

This problem, he emphasized, is particularly severe in the U.S., where prisoners are routinely held under such conditions for months, years and even decades at a time. Many have never committed a violent crime.

Fast-forward five years. The U.S. government has yet to grant Mendez access to a single isolation pod in any U.S. prison. The clock is ticking. Mendez has a mere 20 months left of his term, and he has yet been able to substantiate his reports with a firsthand investigation.

“The U.S. was voted into the Human Rights Council—a position that carries with it an obligation to cooperate,” he says. When he speaks, Mendez wears a look of weary determination befitting of his post.

“I’m disappointed to still be waiting for the State Department to respond to my request. I’ve been waiting over two years.”

“That fact that he hasn’t received a response is contemptible,” says Laura Rovner, legal expert on prison conditions from University of Denver. “It puts the U.S. in the company of countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Russia that also have been unresponsive to requests for country visits.”

“Given the length of the delay,” Rovner continues. “You have to wonder about the reason, whether it’s motivated by concerns about what the Special Rapporteur will find inside these prisons.”

Then suddenly, last December, Mendez was allowed access to California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—a facility known for keeping inmates in isolation indefinitely in its Security Housing Unit (SHU).

This visit did not come about through the official channels Mendez had long been appealing to, however. Instead, he found a way in to one of the most notorious prisons in the country through a kind of backdoor.

Continue reading

Successful Motion in Court Strengthens CA Prisoners’ Case Against Solitary

For Immediate Release – March 10, 2015
Press Contact: Mohamed Shehk, Critical Resistance – 408.910.2618mohamed@criticalresistance.org

Oakland, CA – Pelican Bay prisoners named as plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the use of solitary confinement in California gained an important victory yesterday as U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of a motion filed by the plaintiffs’ counsel. The motion allows prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for more than 10 years, but have been transferred out of Pelican Bay State Prison since the lawsuit was first filed, to be eligible as class members in the case.

Our success with this motion should be a strong message to the prison administration that its attempts to evade court review of its unconstitutional practices,” says Carol Strickman, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and Staff Attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “Our goal in this case is to support the demand of prisoners to end the inhumane use of indefinite solitary, and no amount of legal shell games is going to stop us from achieving that goal.”

In June 2014, the court granted class action status to the case for prisoners held in Pelican Bay’s notorious Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years. Since then, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has attempted to weaken the case and repress political organizing by transferring prisoners out of Pelican Bay, thereby claiming that they are no longer eligible class members in the lawsuit. Continue reading

Feb. 12, 2015: Important Hearing in SHU Lawsuit

In Ashker v. Brown, we will prove that ten years in solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay SHU is cruel and unusual punishment (violating the 8th Amendment).

In an end-run around our lawsuit, CDCR has been transferring hundreds of prisoners out of that SHU.  This is good news for some, but many prisoners are simply being transferred to other SHUs, most notably to Tehachapi.  Four of our ten named plaintiffs have been moved there.  Because the judge previously defined our 8th Amendment class as prisoners presently at Pelican Bay SHU for ten years or more, these plaintiffs and others are no longer considered part of the class.

In response, we recently filed a motion to expand the reach of the solitary confinement lawsuit to include prisoners who have spent 10 years or more at Pelican Bay SHU but have recently been transferred to other California SHUs.
As we wrote:

“the cruel and unusual treatment they experienced, and its debilitating effects, have not abated, but instead continue under a different name in a different prison.”

CDCR should not be able to thwart our 8th Amendment claim by transferring these long-suffering prisoners to a different SHU.  These prisoners should be released from SHU, not moved to a different SHU.  Granting our motion will give the court jurisdiction over these prisoners so that, when we succeed at trial, they will be included in the relief that the court orders.

Please attend the hearing on Plaintiffs’ (Prisoners’) Motion to Amend the Complaint.  Your presence in the courtroom shows the judge that we care and are paying attention to decisions made about the torture in the SHU.

DATE: Thursday,  Feb. 12, 2015
TIME: 2:00 p.m.
ADDRESS: U.S. District Court in Oakland, 1301 Clay Street (federal courthouse)
COURTROOM: Dept. #2,  4th Floor, Hon. Claudia Wilken, presiding


Information explaining the motion came from Carol Strickman,Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and Co-Counsel for Plaintiffs in Ashker v. Brown

NY Times Article on Pelican Bay Class Action Lawsuit, June 3, 2014

Judge’s Decision to Hear Inmates’ Case Threatens Practice of Solitary Confinement

…. Legal experts say that the ruling, which allows inmates at Pelican Bay who have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade to sue as a class, paves the way for a court case that could shape national policy on the use of long-term solitary confinement. …

The use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, the lawsuit contends, is so extreme that it “renders California an outlier in this country and in the civilized world.”

Read the entire NYT article by Erica Goode  HERE