UN expert criticizes torture in American prisons

In a stinging condemnation, an independent international expert on torture accused US prison authorities of going “far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law”.

“Keeping Albert Woodfox in solitary confinement for more than four decades clearly amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately,” he said in a statement. Woodfox is one of the “Albama three”, jailed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972 for the alleged murder of a prison guard. He has been in solitary confinement for nearly 41 years. All three claimed to be innocent.

The censure casts a pall over assertions by successive White House administrations that the US is an exceptional example worth following because it never tortures prisoners.

The criticism is significant because it comes from an elected official of the UN Human Rights Council, a unique forum that the US government uses regularly to condemn human rights abuses around the world, especially by authoritarian non-democracies.

Expert Juan Méndez of Argentina is Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. He has noteworthy credibility as a former Special advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide and an advisor on crime prevention to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. He is currently a Professor at the Washington College of Law and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association.

One of the Alabama three, Robert King was released after 29 years in solitary confinement when his conviction was overturned. Another, Herman Wallace, was released on October 1, 2013 but died three days later of advanced liver cancer.

“Mr. Woodfox, remains in solitary confinement pending an appeal to the federal court and has been kept in isolation in an 8-foot-by-12 foot (2.5 x 3.5 m. Approx.) cell for up to 23 hours per day, with just one hour of exercise or solitary recreation,” Méndez pointed out.

“The circumstances of the incarceration… clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law.”

He called for “an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration” for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.

State prison authorities in the US have repeatedly ignored his requests for on-site visits. “It is about time to provide the opportunity for an in situ assessment of the conditions in US prisons and detention facilities,” he added.

He insisted that persons held in solitary confinement should always be allowed to challenge the reasons and the length of the regime. They should also have access to legal counsel and medical assistance.

These gaps are surprising for foreigners who look up to Americans for their devotion to human dignity and rule of law. Many Americans familiar with the autonomy enjoyed by State Attorney Generals and the complexity of appeal procedures may not be surprised.

But for outsiders, it is hard to understand the wide gap between passionate American evangelism on individual human rights and such long-lived violations in practice.

It is also surprising that a UN human rights investigator is repeatedly refused permission to visit solitary confinement sites and study the related rules. Such behavior is typical of China, Russia, Syria and other human rights violators.

Woodfox is already a cause celebre because of documentaries, films and other materials. Lets hope the remaining legal proceedings help to dispel the odor of torture rising from sharply punitive solitary confinement.

Author: BRIJ KHINDARIA, Foreign Affairs Columnist