Press Release

IACHR Expresses Concern over Excessive Use of Solitary Confinement in the United States

July 18, 2013

Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern as to the causes of a widespread hunger strike taking place in high number of prisons across the State of California, which allegedly originated as a form of protest against the exessive use of solitary confinement. The IACHR urges federal and state authorities to take the necessary measures to bring about the resolution of this situation and to restrict the use of solitary confinement of prisoners in accordinace with the international human rights standards.

According to widely reported information, on July 8, 2013, several thousand prisoners began a hunger strike in 33 state prisons and four private prisons in the State of California. News reports indicate that this protest originated in the solitary confinement unit of Pelican Bay State Prison, in California. According to the information available, thousands of persons deprived of liberty in the United States spend years in solitary confinement, in solitary lock-down for 22 to 23 hours a day. Reportedly, in many cases, the cells where inmates are isolated lack minimum ventilation and natural light, and exercise areas used by inmates are confined in spaces in which they do not necessarily have any contact with other inmates. It is estimated that in the State's maximum security prison in Pelican Bay there are at least one thousand inmates subjected to solitary confinement.

With respect to the use of solitary confinement in the United States, the Inter-American Commission was informed that approximately 80,000 inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, a practice sometimes called by different names. It is reported that on average, at least 30 percent of individuals held in solitary confinement in the United States have mental disabilities, and that children under the age of 18 are routinely subjected to solitary confinement.

The IACHR reiterates that the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment may not be abrogated and is universal. Accordingly, the OAS Member States must adopt strong, concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite isolation under all circumstances. Additionaly, international human rights law establishes as a standard that the use of solitary confinement should be absolutely prohibited in the following circumstances: for children under the age of 18, for persons with mental disabilities, and for death row and life-sentenced prisoners by virtue of their sentence.

Moreover, the IACHR emphasizes that solitary confinement should only be used in exceptional circumstances, for the shortest period possible and only as a measure of last resort. Furthermore, its application must be subject to strict judicial oversight, take place in cells that meet the minimum conditions according to the international standards, and inmates must undergo strict medical supervision. The Commission subscribes to the opinion of the UN Rapporteur on Torture that beyond a period of 15 days, the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 51/13