UN Special Rapporteur says solitary confinement in the U.S. is torture
Many prisoners are kept in indefinite solitary confinement with no knowlege of when they might be released.
Americans love prisons. Since 2002, the nation has had the highest rate of incarceration in the world and a significant number of those prisoners are held in extreme isolation for prolonged periods of time, a condition argued by many that equates to torture.
Could you survive if this were your reality for years on end, without any human contact? What about for life?
Over 90 percent of the incarcerated are men and most of those are in their 20s and 30s. About 70 percent have not completed high school. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate six times that of whites despite being significantly less of the overall population.
A number of these prisoners are housed in solitary confinement, which means they have no contact with other people. Housed alone in a cell, they are fed on a tray pushed through a slot three times a day, and only leave their cell for less than an hour each day, and often less, for exercise.
Exercise takes place in a "yard" which is entirely enclosed and is often little larger than the cell itself. Showers are supervised. There is no human contact whatsoever, no conversation, no music, and in some cases, no photographs, newspapers or magazines.
The punishment is the most extreme form of discipline meted out in the United States, short of the death penalty. It harkens back to 17th century Quaker-inspired prison reforms where an inmate was expected to sit alone with their thoughts and a Bible, contemplating their salvation.
The goal of course, is that the prisoner finds God in their despair and discovers hope, even happiness in their condition through Christ. Yet in the modern prison, even if this happens, there is no improvement of the condition. Instead, prisoners continue their daily routine which amounts to a living death.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Inhuman Punishment, Juan E. Mendez, solitary confinement for a period exceeding 14 days is considered torture. Studies show that lasting psychological harm can arise after only a few days of solitary confinement. Humans are social creatures and confining them can cause psychological damage.
But what about the victims? Many, but not all of these prisoners are held in solitary confinement because they behaved reprehensibly in public life. Some sold drugs, some raped, others murdered. They have all been convicted of crimes and great punishment is certainly justified.
However, should that punishment reach the level of torture? What happens when someone so tortured is expected to return to polite society?
In August, about 30,000 prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison in California embarked on a hunger strike to protest what they say are inhumane conditions there. Pelican Bay is one of the hardest prisons in the state with many of its prisoners kept in solitary confinement.
Prisoners in that facility stay 7.5 years, on average in the "hole" as it is called, and "far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law" according to the UN.
A good number of those prisoners will be released back into society, carrying with them whatever baggage they developed in the hole. That makes this practice a danger to citizens on the street.
There's no question that segregation of certain inmates is sometimes necessary, and there is no question that many of these people deserve it. However, indefinite isolation is exceptionally cruel and inhumane. If we are to be better than the criminals we imprison, then we cannot reduce ourselves to the level of torturers.
We must punish, and ensure justice, which is the role of the state. However, we must also be inspired by our Christian witness and show at least a modicum of mercy even in cases where it is hardly deserved. Ending solitary indefinite detention is one step in the right direction for all.
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Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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