California Prisoners Continue Hunger Strike to Protest Long-Term Isolation, as Human Rights Bodies Urge Reform

Pelican Bay State Prison Credit: Jelson25
Pelican Bay State Prison
Credit: Jelson25

In a press release published on July 18, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its concern regarding the causes behind an organized hunger strike taking place in prisons throughout California. The hunger strike, which began July 8, was organized to protest solitary confinement usage and conditions throughout the state’s prisons. 4,527 inmates are currently being held in solitary confinement cells at four state prisons. [LA Times; NBC]

Isolation in California Prisons

The strike – started by a group of inmates held in isolation in Pelican Bay State Prison before spreading across the state – is California’s second since 2011. [NY Times] In an attempt to neutralize gangs within prisons, inmates thought to be gang members are oftentimes moved to isolation in so-called Secure Housing Units. State policies allow inmates to be held in isolation indefinitely, in some cases for decades, for suspected ties to a gang. [LA Times]  Constitutional advocates and others have criticized the gang validation process as unreliable and lacking adequate safeguards, allowing prisoners to be committed to indefinite isolation without evidence of any specific illegal activity. In May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison, some of whom have spent twenty-eight years in solitary confinement.

With some 30,000 inmates in thirty-three jails initially refusing food, this month’s hunger strike is believed to be the largest prison protest in state history. Many of the demands of the current strikers, which notably include a five-year limit on the time prisoners can be held in isolation in Segregated Housing Units, can be accessed here and here.

Last year, Amnesty International published a report on solitary confinement practices, titled USA: The Edge of Endurance— Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units. According to Amnesty International, with more than 3,000 prisoners currently held in solitary confinement, California is unique in that “no other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.” Id. at p. 2. The report further describes Secure Housing Unit conditions as inhumane:

Prisoners are confined to their cells for at least 22 and a half hours a day. The concrete cells measure approximately 80 square feet and are equipped with two built-in cement bunks against the back wall, a combined toilet and sink unit, a concrete slab which serves as a desk, a fixed stool and small shelf for a TV.

Id. at p. 15.  Amnesty has repeatedly called attention to the plight of California prisoners, including in a statement released yesterday in which the organization criticized prison authorities for punishing hunger strikers, stating, “California prison authorities have again breached international human rights obligations by taking punitive measures against prisoners on hunger strike over conditions for thousands held in solitary confinement in the state’s prisons…”

International Condemnation

In response to the conditions highlighted by California prisoners, the Inter-American Commission’s statement “urges federal and state authorities to take the necessary measures to bring about the resolution of this situation and to restrict the use of solitary confinement of prisoners in accordance with the international human rights standards.” Further, the Commission expressed concern relating to the isolation cells in which inmates are held, maintaining prisoners lacked “minimum ventilation and natural light, and exercise areas used by inmates are confined in spaces in which they do not necessarily have any contact with other inmates.”

The Commission outlined the human rights violations as follows:

The IACHR reiterates that the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment may not be abrogated and is universal. Accordingly, the OAS Member States must adopt strong, concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite isolation under all circumstances. Additionally, international human rights law establishes as a standard that the use of solitary confinement should be absolutely prohibited in the following circumstances: for children under the age of 18, for persons with mental disabilities, and for death row and life-sentenced prisoners by virtue of their sentence […] With respect to the use of solitary confinement in the United States, the Inter-American Commission was informed that approximately 80,000 inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, a practice sometimes called by different names. It is reported that on average, at least 30 percent of individuals held in solitary confinement in the United States have mental disabilities, and that children under the age of 18 are routinely subjected to solitary confinement.

[IACHR]  The IACHR addresses human rights conditions and violations in the thirty-five Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS), including the United States. (For more about the IACHR and OAS, see IJRC’s informational materials on the Inter-American System.)

Among other international human rights instruments, the United States has ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. CAT, arts. 1, 16; ICCPR, arts. 7, 10.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the treaty body responsible for overseeing implementation of the ICCPR, has criticized the harsh conditions of solitary confinement as inconsistent with the United States’ international obligations. In its 2006 Concluding Observations on the U.S. government’s reports, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its concerns:

…that conditions in some maximum security prisons are incompatible with the obligation contained in article 10 (1) of the Covenant to treat detained persons with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. It is particularly concerned by the practice in some such institutions to hold detainees in prolonged cellular confinement, and to allow them out-of-cell recreation for only five hours per week, in general conditions of strict regimentation in a depersonalized environment. It is also concerned that such treatment cannot be reconciled with the requirement in article 10 (3) that the penitentiary system shall comprise treatment the essential aim of which shall be the reformation and social rehabilitation of prisoners. It also expresses concern about the reported high numbers of severely mentally ill persons in these prisons, as well as in regular in U.S. jails.

Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee, United States of America, CCPR/C/USA/CO/3 (15 September 2006).  Further, the Human Rights Committee urged the U.S. government to “scrutinize conditions of detention in prisons, in particular in maximum security prisons, with a view to guaranteeing that persons deprived of their liberty be treated in accordance with the requirements of article 10 of the Covenant and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” Id.

In an October 2011 statement made to the General Assembly, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture called for an end to solitary confinement, stating that solitary confinement of longer than 15 days should be “absolutely prohibited” due to its scientifically proven potential for lasting psychological damage. The statement was part of a broader report prepared by the Special Rapporteur, which may be accessed here.