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Solitary Confinement Is Torture

10:51 am in Uncategorized by Center for Constitutional Rights

by Nahal Zamani, Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

This week, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that it will launch an assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system, amid growing scrutiny of the practice.

The use of solitary confinement is nothing new. In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. led the world in a new practice of imprisoning people in solitary cells, without access to any human contact or stimulation, as a method of rehabilitation. The results were disastrous — prisoners quickly became severely mentally disturbed — and the practice was abandoned. However, a century later, the practice made a dramatic comeback.

Today, the use of solitary is rampant in U.S. prisons. Tens of thousands of individuals across the country are detained inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells in a state of near-total solitude for between 22 and 24 hours a day. The cells have a slot in the door large enough for a guard to slip a food tray through. Prisoners in solitary confinement are frequently deprived of telephone calls and contact visits. “Recreation” involves being taken, often in handcuffs and shackles, to another solitary cell where prisoners can pace alone for an hour before being returned to their cell.

Read about the experiences of one prisoner here.

Not only is solitary confinement severely restrictive, it is also incredibly harmful. Social scientists have documented the devastating psychological and physical effects of prolonged solitary confinement, including significant psychological harms. Researchers have demonstrated that prolonged solitary confinement causes a persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Other documented effects include obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, an oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, chronic depression, feelings of overall deterioration, and suicidal ideation.

This exposure to such life-shattering conditions is clearly cruel and unusual punishment.  Indeed, the use of solitary has been condemned as torture by the international community.

In addition, the use of solitary confinement is a tool in service of political, racial, and religious repression. Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression against individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who advocate for just conditions of confinement, or are political prisoners from various civil rights and independence movements.

In in light of the rampant and increased use of solitary confinement, and its perilous effects, a growing movement is calling for its end. Most important, prisoner-led movements are attracting media attention and public scrutiny of harsh conditions of confinement, including overcrowding, the use of isolation, deplorable health conditions, substandard medical care, and the discriminatory and careless treatment of people with mental illnesses. These efforts have included prisoner-led hunger strikes. Take action here in solidarity with the prisoners.

In 2012, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il.) chaired a hearing on the use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons, and has since met twice with the BOP Director to call for an assessment and reforms.  The Center for Constitutional Rights, along with others, has also launched a legal challenge against California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement in the infamous Pelican Bay prison. Learn more about the Ruiz v. Brown lawsuit with this link.  Many others have launched legislative and advocacy campaigns, as well as legal challenges, to limit and end the use of solitary across the country. This week’s announcement marks a critical step forward towards rethinking the use of this egregious practice, but must not result in a whitewash. We will be standing watch.

Torture Survivors Ask the UN: What’s the Point of Having Laws Against Torture if They Don’t Apply to the Powerful?

11:53 am in Uncategorized by Center for Constitutional Rights

By Katherine Gallagher, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights

One thing brings these four men together. Hassan bin Attash, Sami el-Hajj, Muhammed Khan Tumani and Murat Kurnaz—they are all survivors of the systematic torture program the Bush administration authorized and carried out in locations including Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo, and numerous prisons and CIA “black sites” around the world. Between them, they have been beaten, hung from walls or ceilings, deprived of sleep, food and water, and subjected to freezing temperatures and other forms of torture and abuse while held in U.S. custody. None was charged with a crime, two were detained while still minors, and one of them remains at Guantánamo.

This week, in a complaint filed with the United Nations Committee against Torture, they are asking one question: how can the man responsible for ordering these heinous crimes, openly enter a country that has pledged to prosecute all torturers regardless of their position and not face any legal action?

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) filed the complaint on the men’s behalf.

The country in question is Canada, visited last year by former U.S. President George W. Bush during a paid speaking engagement in Surrey, British Columbia. Bush’s visit drew hundreds in protest, calling for his arrest, and it also provided bin Attash, el-Hajj, Tumani and Kurnaz the opportunity to call on the Canadian government to uphold its legal obligation under the U.N. Convention against Torture, and conduct a criminal investigation against Bush while he was on Canadian soil.

To this end, the four men, submitted a 69-page draft indictment that CCR and CCIJ had presented to Canada’s attorney general ahead of Bush’s arrival in support of their private prosecution. The submission included thousands of pages of evidence against Bush consisting of extensive reports and investigations conducted by multiple U.S. agencies and the U.N. The evidence is overwhelming, not to mention the fact that Bush has admitted, even, boasted of his crimes, saying “damn right” when asked if it was permissible to waterboard a detainee – a recognized act of torture.

Canada should have investigated these crimes. The responsibility to do so is embedded in its domestic criminal code that explicitly authorizes the government to prosecute torture occurring outside Canadian borders. There is no reason it cannot apply to former heads of state, and indeed, the Convention has been found to apply to such figures including Hissène Habré and Augusto Pinochet. A criminal investigation into the allegations was the lawful thing to do. It was also what Canada had agreed to do when it pledged its support to end impunity for torture by ratifying the Convention.

But Canada looked the other way. Not only did federal Attorney General Robert Nicholson refuse to investigate Bush, but the Attorney General of British Columbia swiftly intervened to shut down a private criminal prosecution submitted to a provincial court in his jurisdiction the morning of Bush’s visit.

Thanks to the Obama administration’s call to look only “forward” – even in the face of torture that demands a proper reckoning – and a court system in the U.S. that has readily closed its doors to torture survivors, the crimes of the Bush era are effectively beyond the reach of justice in the U.S. But the immunity – the impunity – granted to these criminals here should not follow them into other countries, particularly those that are signatories to international laws and treaties against torture.

If the Convention against Torture is to have any hope of fulfilling its mission of preventing torture, the committee must send countries like Canada a clear message: it is their legal obligation to ensure there is no safe haven for torturers and any action to the contrary makes these states effectively complicit in furthering impunity for some of the worst crimes of the past decade.

These four survivors are asking the U.N. to enforce its own convention, nothing more and nothing less. They call upon the U.N., unlike Canada, to unequivocally reject a worldview in which the powerful are exempt from rules, treaties and prohibitions against senseless acts of barbarity.  Will the U.N. hear their call?

U.S. Torture Program Architects Must Face Justice

7:05 am in Uncategorized by Center for Constitutional Rights

With the DOJ’s failure to prosecute the Bush Six and other torturers, Spain has a legal obligation to ensure impunity does not cross borders

Guantanamo Bay (Photo: US Army / Flickr)

It has become abundantly clear that the U.S. government has no intention to prosecute anyone within its ranks for the Bush administration’s torture program. This unwillingness underscores the urgent need for other countries to act on behalf of the global community and ensure these officials face justice. In the next couple of months, Spain will have the opportunity to do precisely that.

Ten years after the infamous ‘torture memos’ and with no prosecutions of any high-level U.S. officials, any remaining doubts about the United States’ commitment to addressing the abuses of the Bush era were put to rest by the recent announcement from the Justice Department that it would not charge anyone involved in the torture of over 100 men held in CIA-run prisons overseas, and the deaths of two men in custody.

Back in 2009, securing the outcome of this investigation before it even opened, Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized that the DOJ would not prosecute “anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees.”  By placing this ‘legal guidance,’ a euphemism for the infamous torture memos, outside the scope of any investigation, Holder effectively ensured that no government personnel – from the Bush administration lawyers who approved the torture program to those who implemented it – would be prosecuted for state crimes.

But the United States’ failure to investigate and prosecute its own officials’ acts of torture does not mean that these crimes will go unpunished—or that impunity will prevail.

In Spain, there is currently one open criminal investigation into the U.S. torture program.   While it is proceeding slowly, this case has a broad mandate: to examine “an authorized and systematic plan of torture and ill-treatment on persons deprived of their freedom without any charge and without the basic rights of any detainee, set out and required by applicable international conventions.”

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