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Treatment of prisoners in US should comply with international human rights law

12:30 | 09.08.2013 | Analytic


9 August 2013. PenzaNews. 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, Global human rights organization Amnesty International said 22 July 2013.

Photo: Cdcr.ca.gov

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“Prisoners seeking an end to inhumane conditions should not be subjected to punitive measures for exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest,” said Angela Wright, Amnesty International’s USA researcher.

“Prolonged isolation under conditions which can only be described as cruel and inhumane treatment is prohibited under international law,” she added.

According to the human rights organization, approximately 30 thousands prisoners in more than 24 prisons began their hunger strike on 8 July 2013 to protest the state’s policy of long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHU).

“On 11 July, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) pledged to take disciplinary action against all those participating in the hunger strike – which may extend their time in the SHU. Hunger strike leaders have also been subjected to increased isolation, where they face harsher conditions and increased restrictions on communication with their lawyers,” the statement says.

A core group of hunger strikers in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Units claim the prison authorities have blasted cold air into their cells, as well as confiscated fluids, hygiene products and legal materials.

“At least 500 prisoners have spent more than a decade in the security units in conditions of environmental and social deprivation which flout international standards for humane treatment. Numerous studies have shown that being held under such harsh environmental conditions is detrimental to a prisoners’ psychological and physical health. Prisoners held under these conditions are denied rehabilitative or educational programming, and have little or no social contact, including with family members. Most are eventually released back into mainstream society where the long-term effects of their confinement make reintegration harder,” Amnesty International says.

“It is unsurprising that prisoners in the SHU are protesting the conditions of their detention. Rather than punishing prisoners further with the threat of disciplinary action the Department of Corrections should commit to meaningful reforms that will address the inhumanity of the state’s prison system,” said Angela Wright.

However, Terry Thornton, Deputy Press Secretary at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in an interview with news agency PenzaNews that there is no so-called solitary confinement in California prisons.

“The Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison is not “solitary confinement.” In fact, there is no unit within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that can be described as “solitary confinement,” she said.

According to Terry Thornton, the SHU is specifically designed to house offenders whose conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the prison.

“The treatment of inmates does not violate international human rights law. Moreover, CDCR is compliant with the laws of the State of California, the United States Constitution, and departmental policies and procedures which mandates all prisoners be treated humanely. CDCR is monitored by federal court monitors, external oversight agencies including the Office of the Inspector General, the California State Legislature, and numerous other external groups. CDCR is also subject to intense internal audits and inspections and is complying with American Correctional Association standards,” CDCR Deputy Press Secretary said.

In her opinion, there are a lot of myths about the SHU.

“The facts are as follows. The temperature in the SHU is electronically controlled. The indoor SHU temperature is monitored and recorded every three hours. SHU inmates exercise in the yard 90 minutes per day seven days a week. The yard provides fresh air through an open roof. Inmates in the SHU eat the same food all inmates eat based on their dietary needs and preferences. SHU inmates visit with their friends and family every weekend, just like all inmates. SHU inmates routinely visit with their attorneys in confidential settings during the week. SHU inmates visit the law library, which is open five days a week. SHU inmates get mail, publications and packages,” Terry Thornton explained.

According to her, SHU inmates have access to educational programs and can earn Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Arts degrees.

“Nearly all SHU inmates have personal radios and televisions in their cells. They have 23 cable channels. SHU inmates communicate with one another frequently and talk to each other. Many have cell mates. All SHU inmates, like all state prison inmates, have access to medical and mental health services,” she added.

Moreover, according to Terry Thornton, The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) already implemented its reforms in October 2012.

“The Office of the Inspector General conducted a special review of CDCR’s response to the first mass hunger strike in 2011 and concluded that the department delivered on everything it promised,” Terry Thornton noted.

According to Antonio M. Ginatta, Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch US Program, currently around 385 inmates have been on a hunger strike continuously since it began in early July.

“The goal of the hunger strike is to reform California’s use of solitary confinement, but there’s an even more basic problem: California’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed. And because of that, California claims it uses solitary confinement to maintain safety in its prisons. This is an indefensible policy,” he said.

In his opinion, California should not be able to justify mistreating its prisoners by claiming that it cannot afford to maintain safety any other way.

“If it cannot safely imprison people, then it needs to adequately fund its correctional system or reduce its dangerously overcrowded prison population. The issue of massive overcrowding in California prisons is a major issue, and has reached all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. Just last week the Court denied a request by California to delay a court order to release prisoners because of dangerous overcrowding,” HRW expert said.

According to him, solitary takes different forms in different states and in some prisons there are appropriate conditions; however, some of the demands of the prisoners in California make clear how cruel the local conditions are.

“One request they have is simply to be allowed to put calendars on their wall. They’re asking for one photograph each year,” Antonio M. Ginatta emphasized.

“The UN rapporteur on torture stated in 2011 that prolonged solitary confinement could reach the threshold of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, even possibly torture. He stated that prolonged solitary confinement was any use of solitary beyond 15 days. Many of these prisoners in California have been in solitary not for weeks, but months, years, and even decades,” he reminded.

At the same time, in his opinion, the problem has deeper roots than the lack of funding.

“I’ve seen several different numbers on how much it costs to house a prisoner. According to California’s non-partisan fiscal and policy adviser, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the average cost to incarcerate an inmate in the state was 47 thousand dollars per year during 2008 and 2009. But however much it costs, clearly California is doing something wrong,” Antonio M. Ginatta noted.

Gregory D. Lee, who is a retired US Drug Enforcement Administration Supervisory Special Agent and is now a criminal justice consultant and expert witness believes that the problem stems from the California political leadership shirking its responsibility to provide for public safety.

“California has passed laws requiring long-term incarceration for many crimes, and due to many life sentences, coupled with no one being executed on death row for over a decade, the prisons have filled to way beyond capacity. California’s population has grown fast, yet the state government has failed to keep up with building additional prison facilities to house long-term prisoners. California’s liberal governor and legislature would rather spend money on housing and educating illegal aliens then incarcerating criminals. The liberals in the state capital philosophically do not want to punish criminals, so having a court order to release thousands of prisoners doesn't seem to bother them much,” the expert said.

He also noted that the state has attempted reforms in the past and nothing seems to get accomplished.

“Prisoners want state-of-the-art health care and mental health treatment and will probably get it eventually through the courts costing taxpayers more money,” a criminal justice consultant said.

However, in his opinion, prolonged detention reduces the crime rate.

“The crime rate in California has steadily declined in the past 20-years in my opinion, from “warehousing” violent and repetitive criminals. There is no question that keeping criminals in prison for long periods of time reduces the crime rate every time it is tried. When they are in prison they are deprived of the opportunity to commit additional crimes,” he explained.

From his point of view, the solution to the problem is obviously to build more prisons, however other priorities seem to get in the way.

“I think it's the state's responsibility to provide for public safety, but instead it would rather spend billions of dollars building a high-speed train to nowhere no one will ride, and continue to fund illegal aliens and other liberal causes. When the crime rate skyrockets again, and it will once these prisoners are released, maybe the law makers will have the political will to finally do something about it,” Gregory D. Lee said.

Anthony Graves, a founder of Anthonybelieves.com firm, a motivational speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform, who is also a former death row inmate, strongly condemned the conditions of detention in the United States.

The prison strike is sort of the last resort to get attention drawn to the inhumane treatment behind those prison walls. It speaks heavily about the need for prison oversight,” the expert noted.

Taking into account the data on the prison financing published in the media, he suggested that most of the money has to be spent on ways to oppress the inmates and not rehabilitate them otherwise men would not be starving themselves to bring attention to such harsh treatment.

“No man wants to starve himself for no reason in prison unless he is mentally ill or standing up against inhumane conditions. Both reasons should be enough for an investigation,” he emphasized.

The expert also expressed hope that the new generation will treat each other more humanely than the old guard that's been in place in this country for far too long.

“So I believe change will be inevitable. When the prison system fail to rehabilitate the men and women the court sends to them then it further aid to a dangerous society be releasing the inmates with all the baggage they put on them through harsh treatment and punishment. The prison system is letting society down by sending guys out more damaged than they were before they got there. We as a people and as a society should be demanding for a better prison system to help better protect our society,” Anthony Graves said.

Alexis Agathocleous, a Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York, noted that this hunger strike highlights the deep problems endemic in California’s prison system.

“We are currently litigating a federal lawsuit challenging policies and practices around the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, one of California’s most notoriously harsh prisons. The plaintiffs in our case have been isolated at the Pelican Bay SHU for between 11 and 22 years. Many were sent to Pelican Bay directly from other SHUs, and thus have spent even longer – over 25 years – in solitary confinement. These are shocking and unconscionable periods of time – particularly given that California places prisoners in solitary confinement based on allegations of association with a gang, rather than gang-related acts or violent conduct,” the expert explained.

According to him, holding a prisoners in the SHU is significantly more expensive than holding a prisoner in general population, despite the fact that SHU prisoners are provided with the barest minimum amenities.

“The conditions is the SHU are truly shocking. Prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU languish in a cramped, concrete, windowless cells, for 22 to 24 hours a day. They go without any face-to-face interaction with any other human beings other than correctional officers, and are given food – frequently rotten and cold and lacking in adequate caloric and nutritional value – through a slot in a solid metal door. They are delivered to a barren, solid concrete pen, known as a “dog run” – ostensibly for an hour a day, but oftentimes not at all – to exercise alone. They are denied any family telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. They cannot have a normal human conversation with another prisoner. Their only avenue of communication is by speaking loudly enough for another prisoner to hear – but any communication with another gang validated prisoner is considered “gang activity” and can be used as an excuse to keep them in SHU. Pelican Bay is located hundreds of miles from cities, meaning that most have not had a family visit in years. When they do occur, these visits are behind plexiglass, over a telephone, and no physical contact is allowed,” Alexis Agathocleous noted.

There conditions are devastating under any circumstances, but the fact that prisoners at Pelican Bay have been suffering under them for decades is unconscionable, he believes.

“We hope that, in response to prisoner demands, and to this ongoing federal civil rights law suit, CDCR will meaningfully engage with the prisoners who have been suffering under these conditions for decades at a time, and bring about long overdue reforms. These reforms must address how CDCR designates prisoners to the SHU and reviews their status once they are there, but also must improve conditions for these prisoners so that they comport with constitutional and international human rights standards,” the expert concluded.

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