No one who has spent any time studying and writing about Guantánamo, as I have, could fail to realize that, although the terrible innovation of Guantánamo is indefinite detention without charge or trial, its orange jumpsuits, and the perceived normality of solitary confinement as standard operating procedure, arrived at the prison directly from America’s domestic prison system — where there are 2.2 million prisoners (and almost 7 million people under correctional supervision (including probation and parole), and up to 100,000 prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement at any one time. Most harrowingly, many thousands of these prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement not as occasional punishment, but as a policy, and have spent years, or even decades without any human contact.
As Kevin Gosztola explained in July 2011, in an article for FireDogLake, “40 states and the federal government have supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.”
Over the years, I have endeavored to cover the horrors of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. In December 2010, I joined a call for a worldwide ban on the use of solitary confinement, and in 2011 I covered the hunger strikes that began in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility — see here, here, here and here. I also cross-posted a hugely important article about long-term solitary confinement, “Hellhole,” written by Atul Gawande for the New Yorker in 2009, and in 2012 reported on calls by Professor Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, for an end to the use of solitary confinement, and an appeal to the UN by Pelican Bay prisoners. Read the rest of this entry »
This article, published simultaneously here and on the “Close Guantánamo” website, contains information from a visit to Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, by Ramzi Kassem, one of his lawyers, and was made available exclusively to Andy Worthington at Shaker’s request.
Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the US “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has a message to the world, which has been made available exclusively to me, at his request. He wants people to know that the treatment of the prisoners is “completely arbitrary,” and there are “no laws, rules or SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] in Cuba.” Subjected to violence every day, he continues to demand “freedom and justice.”
In information from a visit on May 14 this year by Ramzi Kassem, one of his lawyers, Shaker, who has spent much of his time in Guantánamo in isolation, explained how, from December 2011 to April 2012, he was held in the maximum security cells of Camp V, where those regarded as troublesome have been held since the block was built in 2004, but was then returned to isolation in a block known as Five Echo.
The existence of Five Echo — where the cells are only half the size of those in Camp V — was first revealed by the US military in December 2011, when David Remes, another of Shaker’s lawyers, explained to the Associated Press that his client had been held there and that it was “a throwback to the bad old days at Guantánamo.” Read the rest of this entry »
Last July, when prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) in Pelican Bay State Prison in California embarked on a hunger strike to protest about the conditions in which they are held, I was pleased to find the time to wrote about it (which I did here, here and here — and again in October, here and here), as it had long been apparent to me that the abusive conditions to which foreign prisoners were subjected at Guantánamo — though shockingly innovative in terms of arbitrary detention — was otherwise a reflection of how America treats tens of thousands of domestic prisoners held in isolation, in some cases for decades.
This is barbaric, and clearly constitutes torture, and I was reassured to note that, three weeks ago, prisoners in California asked the United Nations to help them. As San Francisco Bay View explained in an article on March 21:
Comparing their conditions to a “living coffin,” 400 California prisoners held in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement petitioned the United Nations Tuesday to intervene on behalf of all of the more than 4,000 prisoners similarly situated [see here for the petition, and here for quotes from 22 of the petitioners].
“California holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other state in the United States or any other nation on earth. The treatment of these prisoners is barbaric and, numerous experts agree, amounts to torture,” [said] Peter Schey, who heads the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, [and] is lead counsel for the prisoners who have “joined together to petition the United Nations to intervene by conducting on-site investigations, permitting Red Cross visits, and ultimately ruling that California’s policy on isolated segregation amounts to torture and violates well-established international human rights norms.” Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Professor Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, spoke about the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower, telling the news agency AFP, “I believe Bradley Manning was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the excessive and prolonged isolation he was put in during the eight months he was in Quantico.”
This was a reference to the US military brig near Washington D.C., where Manning was held after his arrest in Kuwait, and before he was moved to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas (on April 20 last year). when his treatment noticeably improved. I wrote about Manning’s ill-treatment at the time, in my articles, Is Bradley Manning Being Held as Some Sort of “Enemy Combatant”?, Psychologists Protest the Torture of Bradley Manning to the Pentagon; Jeff Kaye Reports, and Former Quantico Commander Objects to Treatment of Bradley Manning, the Alleged WikiLeaks Whistleblower. In addition, as I noted in an article last November, after Manning had been charged, and when a date was set for his first hearing:
Among the disturbing details to emerge was information about his chronic isolation, and about the enforced use of nudity to humiliate him, all of which provided uncomfortable echoes of the Bush administration’s torture program, as used in military brigs on the US mainland on two US citizens, Jose Padilla (who lost his mind as the result of his torture) and Yaser Hamdi, and US resident Ali al-Marri. Read the rest of this entry »
On Tuesday, Professor Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities,” as a UN news release explained. Presenting his first interim report (PDF) on the practice to the UN General Assembly (which was published in August), Professor Méndez noted that the use of solitary confinement was “global in nature and subject to widespread abuse,” as the news release also explained.
An abhorrence of solitary confinement is central to my work — both for its inherent cruelty and because it is a form of torture — and I was delighted to read Professor Mendez’s comments, as I had the pleasure to meet him in January at an event on the future of Guantánamo and accountabiity for torture at the American University Washington College of Law, where he is a Visiting Professor of Law, when he delivered a powerful critique of the use of torture, and the need for the absolute ban on its use to be upheld.
Professor Mendez’s opinions are important, not just because he is a survivor of torture in Argentina, but because much of the solitary confinement in the world’s prisons is taking place in the United States, where he is currently based. Back in January, I thought how appropriate it was, given US history under the Bush administration, that the UN Rapporteur on Torture was based in America, and I remain convinced that it is appropriate, because, of course, lawyers in the Bush administration cynically and inappropriately attempted to redefine torture, and the use of torture was approved by senior officials, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld — and also, of course, because President Obama has failed to hold any of his predecessors accountable for their crimes. Read the rest of this entry »
On Day 17 of the renewed hunger strike by prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison, and other prisons in California, prisoners, their relatives and their supporters fear that there will soon be deaths amongst the hunger strikers, because, as SF Bay View reported yesterday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) “has been treating the current strike, which began on Sept. 26, as a mass disturbance and has refused negotiations.”
As the article explained, prisoners have begun to report “grave medical issues.” A relative of a striker at Calipatria State Prison said, “Men are collapsing in their cells because they haven’t eaten in two weeks,” adding, “I have been told that guards refuse to respond when called. This is clearly a medical emergency.”
As I explained yesterday, in my article, Pelican Bay and American Torture: Prisoners in Long-Term Isolation Continue Hunger Strike Despite Authorities’ Brutal Response, in an attempt to stop the strike, the CDCR has been isolating prisoners regarded as leaders in Pelican Bay, moving them from the Security Housing Unit (SHU), where they have been in almost total isolation — some for years, some for decades — to Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg).
To give some sense of the horrors of the system, the hunger strikers have stated that “513 of the 1,111 prisoners held at Pelican Bay have been in solitary confinement for 10 or more years, and 78 have been held for more than 20 years without access to light or open space for prolonged periods of time.” Moreover, there are three other SHUs in California, and nationally at least 75,000 prisoners are currently held in solitary confinement, even though it is self-evidently a form of torture when used for more than a short period of time. Read the rest of this entry »
When it comes to America’s domestic prison system, no one in a position of authority wants to use the word “torture,” but I defy anyone whose heart is not made of stone to argue that total solitary confinement — for years and even decades — with no contact allowed with other human beings, and in cells with no natural light, is not torture.
In July, prisoners in isolation — in Security Housing Units — in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison started a hunger strike, protesting about the conditions of their confinement, and their treatment by the authorities. The hunger strike soon spread to other prisons in California, with, at one point, 6,600 prisoners on hunger strike, and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition issued an informative statement explaining, “Dozens of US-based and international human rights organizations have condemned Security Housing Units as having cruel, inhumane, and torturous conditions. SHU prisoners are kept in windowless, 6 by 10 foot cells, 23½ hours a day, for years at a time.”
As an insight into the scale of the problem, the hunger strikers have stated that “513 of the 1,111 prisoners held at Pelican Bay have been in solitary confinement for 10 or more years, and 78 have been held for more than 20 years without access to light or open space for prolonged periods of time.” Read the rest of this entry »
For nine and a half years — almost as long as the “war on terror” has been providing an excuse for paranoia about Muslims in general — the case of US citizen Jose Padilla has demonstrated, to those willing to pay attention, that something has gone horribly wrong in the United States of America.
A former gang member and a convert to Islam, Padilla was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, in connection with an alleged “dirty bomb plot” that never existed, on May 8, 2002, as he returned from Pakistan. Held for a month as a material witness, he was then designated an “enemy combatant” by President George W. Bush, and held in complete isolation in a military brig for the next three and half years — a process that also involved prolonged sensory deprivation. According to the psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty, who spent 22 hours with Padilla in 2006, “What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind.”
In November 2005, fearing that Padilla might successfully challenge the government’s argument that it had the right to hold a US citizen indefinitely without charge or trial on the US mainland, and subject him to torture, the Bush administration suddenly indicted Padilla on charges of conspiracy “to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas,” and transferred him out of the brig. However, the injustice did not come to an end, as the courts then took over. Read the rest of this entry »
With contested claims that the three-week long hunger strike in California’s prisons has come to an end (as I discussed in a recent article, The California Prison Hunger Strike Opposing Solitary Confinement as Torture — and the Insulting Response of Prison Officials), the horrendous human rights abuses in America’s prisons may once more slip off the radar, which would be a depressing development, as the hunger strike that began in Pelican Bay prison — and specifically in the Security Housing Units, where prisoners are held in solitary confinement, often for years and often for reasons that have nothing to do with them posing a threat to anyone or having engaged in violent behaviour — is highlighting a problem that is largely ignored in the mainstream US media.
That problem, in a nutshell, is that at least 100,000 prisoners in America’s prisons — both in “supermax” facilities and in other prisons — are held in long-term solitary confinement, which, to be blunt, is a form of torture.
In the hope of providing convincing information about this horrendous problem at the heart of America, I’m cross-posting below a wonderfully thorough article on the whole problem of solitary confinement that was written by Atul Gawande, a US surgeon and journalist, for the New Yorker in 2009. The article covers everything that need to be considered if — and it’s a big if — the American people want to step back from barbarity and address the fundamental problems with their approach to prison, in which far too many people are imprisoned, and far too many of those are being imprisoned inhumanely,subjected to isolation that is so damaging that the use of the word torture to describe it is not an exaggeration. Read the rest of this entry »
On Thursday July 21, as the widespread hunger strike in California’s prisons — primarily aimed at highlighting the abusive conditions in which prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) — reached the three-week mark, Matthew Cate, the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), issued a deeply cynical press release announcing that inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, where the strike began on July 1, had ended their hunger strike.
Claiming that the strike “was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians,” and adding that hunger strikes “are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate,” Cate claimed that inmates at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit “stopped the strike on July 20 after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management,” which “include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”
Reducing a widespread hunger strike against torture to a misunderstanding, remedied by granting prisoners a few trinkets, was deeply insulting, and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition immediately responded, stating that the CDCR had “prematurely announced that the hunger strike is over,” and pointing out that “the prisoner-approved mediation team (which the hunger strike leaders have insisted participate in any negotiations) was not involved in this so-called resolution around the strike, and the CDCR has not fully announced what was agreed upon.” The Coalition added, pointedly, “Clearly the CDCR is more interested in improving their Public Relations image than addressing real issues of torture.” Read the rest of this entry »
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