On Tuesday, a significant victory took place in the long struggle by campaigners — and prisoners themselves — to improve detention conditions in US prisons, when a settlement was reached in Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent a decade or more in solitary confinement.
In a press release, the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers represented the prisoners, with co-counsel from other lawyers’ firms and the organizations California Prison Focus and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, stated that the “landmark” settlement “will effectively end indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons,” resulting in “a dramatic reduction in the number of people in solitary across the state and a new program that could be a model for other states going forward.”
As CCR noted, the class action “was brought in 2012 on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay prison, often without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, often for more than a decade, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population.” The case argued that California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and denies prisoners the right to due process.” Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been so busy lately with the launch of We Stand With Shaker, the new campaign to secure the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, that I haven’t had time to write anything — until now — about the United States’ recent appearance before the United Nations Committee Against Torture to explain its position on the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in its custody.
The session — which took place on November 12 and 13, and was the first US report to the Committee Against Torture since 2006, when George W. Bush was president — led to numerous criticisms in the Committee’s response, adopted on November 20; in the Guardian‘s words, of “indefinite detention without trial; force-feeding of Guantánamo prisoners; the holding of asylum seekers in prison-like facilities; widespread use of solitary confinement; excessive use of force and brutality by police; shootings of unarmed black individuals; and cruel and inhumane executions.”
The Committee was also concerned about the US record on torture, expressing “its grave concern over the extraordinary rendition, secret detention and interrogation programme operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) between 2001 and 2008, which involved numerous human rights violations, including torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance of persons suspected of involvement in terrorism-related crimes” — concerns expressed in a 2010 UN report about secret detention on which I was the lead author (and also see here, here and here) — and reminded the US about “the absolute prohibition of torture reflected in article 2, paragraph 2, of the Convention [Against Torture], stating that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.'” The Committee also called for the long-delayed Senate Intelligence Committee torture report — or, more accurately, its executive summary — to be issued without further delay. Read the rest of this entry »
Suddenly I’m talking to people on the radio all the time — for the first time since the height of the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo a few months back. I’ll shortly be speaking to an old friend, Peter B. Collins in San Francisco, and on Sunday I’ll be speaking to another old friend, Jackie Chase at Radio Free Brighton, and I’ll be making those shows available as soon as they’re online. On Saturday, I spoke to Chuck Mertz in Chicago for “This is Hell” (which I publicized here), and in the interests of completeness I’m posting here a couple of shows I did recently that I haven’t made available until now.
The first show was a half-hour interview with Linda Olson-Osterlund on KBOO FM in Portland,Oregon, which I wasn’t able to make available until now because of problems with KBOO FM’s website. These have now been resolved, and the interview is available here (or via the webpage here). Linda and I have been discussing Guantánamo for many years, and, although it is never a happy occasion to have to talk about Guantánamo, it was good to be able to discuss at length the ongoing injustice of the prison, the failure to close it, and the responsibilities for that failure, which lie with all three branches of the US government — the Obama administration, Congress and parts of the judiciary; specifically, the court of appeals in Washington D.C. and the Supreme Court.
The spur for our discussion was the release of two Algerian prisoners, and it is a sign of how very wrong things are at Guantánamo that they were the first two prisoners to be freed as a result of the wishes of the Obama administration — rather than through a court order or a plea deal in the military commission trials — since September 2010. The two men had been cleared for release in January 2010 by the inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office in January 2009, but while they have finally been released, 84 other men, also cleared for release by the task force, continue to be held, because of Congressional obstruction, and President Obama’s unwillingness to spend political capital overcoming the obstacles raised by Congress. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: