Crime & Justice

Prisoners, advocates petition UN to investigate solitary confinement

An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison sits on his bunk bed in a gymnasium.
An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison sits on his bunk bed in a gymnasium.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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California inmates and criminal justice activists argue that solitary confinement in prisons amounts to torture. Both groups are asking the United Nations to investigate.

Activists say they want the U.N. and the International Red Cross to see firsthand how locking away thousands of prisoners in segregated units violates human rights.

“Even though they have not engaged in any particular misconduct, they’re basically placed in solitary confinement," said Peter Schey, who leads the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, based in Los Angeles. His organization is among more than a dozen listed on a petition that hundreds of prisoners intend to file with the U.N.

He added that many prisoners stay in solitary for "periods of a minimum of six years to 20, 25 years.”

Schey, who represents hundreds of inmates, joined prisoners’ relatives and friends in front of the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in downtown L.A. Some of them carried signs displaying inmates’ photos.

Marie Martin of L.A. says her 49-year-old son has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager.

“My son was a little bit darker than myself," says Martin. "His wife told me she saw him two weeks ago, that he was so pale, because they never get sunlight."

He’s currently serving a life sentence for murder. Martin says police believed that her son, now a human rights activist, was a gang member. She says he’s remained in solitary confinement for most of his life, including at the Pelican Bay State Prison where he is now.

“They never get to hold or even shake hands with their family and wives," says Martin. "They deny them visits.”

Demonstrators argue that corrections authorities in this state wrongly place inmates in solitary segregation when they suspect gang affiliations. The activists say that California holds more inmates in solitary units than any other state, and that most of those prisoners are Latino or black.

"Inmate advocate groups have every right to send a petition to the United Nations," says Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

He emphasizes that the department recently proposed a four-step process that would allow more options for inmates to get out of isolated security housing units.

“If you graduate out of step four, you hopefully can go back into general population," Callison explained. "As you move through these steps, you acquire more privileges. You earn those privileges through changed behavior."

Callison says prison authorities would address a potential U.N. investigation if international leaders decide to move forward.

As it stands now, corrections officers place inmates in segregated housing units for six years unless they quit the gangs they belong to.