Comparing their conditions to a “living coffin,” a group of lawyers for hundreds of California prisoners placed in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement petitioned the United Nations yesterday to intervene on their behalf.
The petition, drawn up by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, names 22 main inmate petitioners and refers to hundreds more held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs) and Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs). The prisoners have been joined in their petition by a coalition of state and national advocacy groups.
These petitioners accuse California’s prisons of subjecting inmates in its to “cruel, degrading and extreme punishment prohibited by international human rights norms and obligations of the United States of America, including the State of California.” It describes their conditions as follows:
[N]ot only do California prisoners face cruel and dehumanzing long-term and indefinite confinement in small concrete cells with no windows, no natural light, and no furniture, they also endure frequent episodes of cruelty by guards, inadequate medical care, entirely inadequate mental health services, inadequate access to the outdoors and sunshine, inadequate food, inadequate access to legal counsel, inadequate visitation with friends and family and no opportunities to work or engage in productive activities of any type. They are effectively locked in a concrete small space that becomes a “living coffin” in which many have been confined for many year, even decades.
The prisoners in question, the petition asserts, “are being detained in isolated segregated units for indefinite periods or determinate periods of many years solely because they have been identified as members of gangs or found to have associated with a gang. The policy that has resulted in their prolonged detention does not require that they have actually engaged in any misconduct of illegal activity, or that they even planned to” do so.
The petition calls upon the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to take a number of actions in response, including conducting site visits to California’s SHUs to investigate conditions and interview prisoners. It also suggests visits by the Red Cross and by an independent panel that would review inmates’ medical records and medical care. It wants the UN to issue a report holding that solitary confinement as practiced in California’s SHUs violates international law, and then “call upon the Government of the United States to insure that California terminates its policy of placing prisoners in isolated segregation for periods of several years merely based upon their alleged membership in or association with a gang.”
Describing the genesis of the petition, prisoner advocate Kendra Castaneda writes in the San Francisco Bay View: “After the first Pelican Bay State Prison SHU statewide hunger strike in July 2011, Peter Schey, president and executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, reached out to men being held in isolation in solitary confinement units across the state.” The group secured the collaboration of “22 main plaintiffs of different races at different California prisons, ranging from one year in segregation up to 39 years in complete isolation based solely on a process of prison gang ‘validation’ by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.”
The petition itself is a notable document for anyone concerned with solitary confinement in the United States. It runs to 63 pages and includes case studies of each of the named plaintiffs, along with extensive discussion and documentation of how their confinement violates both U.S. and international law.