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UN urges ban on solitary confinement – what does it mean for California prisons?

An Iraqi detainee on
An Iraqi detainee on "death row" rests in his solitary confinement cell at the Camp Cropper detention center September 20, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.
John Moore/Getty Images

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The United Nations’ lead investigator on torture, Juan Mendez, has called for governments to put an end to solitary confinement in prisons, arguing it can amount to torture and cause serious mental and physical damage.

“Today, my sense is that solitary confinement is being used more and more and in so many different settings and for different purposes that it’s high time that we start thinking of some limits to it,” he told KPCC's Patt Morrison.

Mendez presented the results of his study to the UN general assembly last week and he hopes it will generate more discussion on the topic.

“There are some forms of isolation or solitary confinement or segregation, as it’s sometimes called, that are absolutely legitimate. The problem is trying to draw a line as to when it ceases to be legitimate precisely because it inflicts pain and suffering severe enough to qualify as torture:”

In the report, Mendez defined solitary confinement as an inmate being held in isolation from everyone but guards for at least 22 hours a day and estimates that between 20-25,000 people are currently being held in isolation within the U.S.

Solitary confinement has made the headlines several times this year, from the controversy over the isolation of Bradley Manning – the U.S. soldier accused of leaking secret documents to Wikileaks – to the hunger strike in California prisons over the practice of isolating prisoners. While the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) doesn't consider its practice to be solitary confinement, they argue there are reasons for it, ranging from punishment to protection of prisoners from fellow inmates.

“The department of corrections doesn’t use it as a method of punishment or a means to gain information from an individual," said George Giurbino, director of Division of Adult Institutions at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

"The primary reason that we do use administrative segregation and security housing units (SHU) is for individuals that demonstrate extreme violence within the institutional setting. Many of these individuals are gang leaders and validated gang members, and many of these individuals that are in the SHU have been implicated in homicides, violent assaults and stabbing other individuals.”

But there are others reasons as well.

“We do house individuals for their own protection as well. On a fairly regular basis we have individuals that come to us indicating that they need personal protection from the general population.”

Giurbino said that in the coming months, the CDCR will be inspecting their gang validation process and indeterminate SHU process. Amnesty international will be taking a tour of the security housing units to provide insight. He said their evaluation of their own policies, practices and procedures is going to culminate in early next year with a case-by-case review of those they have in security housing units.

“I’m hoping that corrections officials, who are knowledgeable about what it takes to run prisons, etc., will discuss honestly whether the use of solitary confinement really pursues good objectives and obtains good effects. I know that they are many highly experienced correction officials that have publicly said that it doesn’t work and that it actually makes matters worse,” U.N. investigator Mendez said.


Is it time to reconsider or is this the grim reality of detention?


Juan Mendez, lead investigator on torture for the United Nations; he was held in solitary confinement for three days in his native Argentina in the 1970s

George Giurbino, director of Division of Adult Institutions at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz; he was involved in the Stanford Prison Experiment