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UN Special Rapporteur on torture calls for the prohibition of solitary confinement

NEW YORK (18 October 2011) – “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit (SHU)… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” said today the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, to the UN General Assembly.

“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” the rights expert stressed presenting his first interim report* to the General Assembly. In it, he examines the practice of solitary confinement “which is global in nature and subject to widespread abuse.”

There is no universal definition for solitary confinement because the degree of social isolation varies with different practices. However, for the Special Rapporteur, it is “any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others (except guards) for at least twenty-two hours a day.”

“Social isolation is one of the harmful elements of solitary confinement and its main objective. It reduces meaningful social contact to an absolute minimum,” Mr. Méndez said. “A significant number of individuals will experience serious health problems regardless of the specific conditions of time, place, and pre-existing personal factors”.

“Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of fifteen days, should also be subject to an absolute prohibition,” the expert said noting that scientific studies have established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.

The Special Rapporteur also called for an end to the practice of solitary confinement in pre-trial detention based solely on the seriousness of the offense alleged, as well as a complete ban on its use for juveniles and persons with mental disabilities.

“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause,” Mr. Méndez warned, “it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”

Solitary confinement for shorter terms or for legitimate disciplinary reasons can also amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment where the physical conditions of prison regime (sanitation, access to food and water) fail to respect the inherent dignity of the human person and cause severe mental and physical pain or suffering.

“Solitary confinement should be used only in very exceptional circumstances, for as short a time as possible,” the independent expert emphasized. “In the exceptional circumstances in which its use is legitimate, procedural safeguards must be followed. I urge States to apply a set of guiding principles when using solitary confinement.”

In his view, “States should also follow internal and external safeguards in order to provide the greatest possible protection of the rights of detained individuals when solitary confinement is used.”

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on 1 November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. He is currently a Professor of Law at the American University – Washington College of Law and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association.

(*) Read the full report by the Special Rapporteur: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/445/70/PDF/N1144570.pdf?OpenElement

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/torture/rapporteur/index.htm

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cat.htm

For more information and media requests:
In New York: Fred Kirungi (Tel.: +1 917 367 3431 / kirungi@un.org)
In Geneva: Ms. Sonia Cronin (Tel: +41 22 917 91 60 / email: scornin@ohchr.org), or Ms. Yiyao Zhang (Tel: +41 22 917 91 58 / email: yzhang@ohchr.org).

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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