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UN Special Rapporteur on torture warns about abuse of solitary confinement in the Americas

Solitary confinement in the Americas

13 March 2013

WASHINGTON D.C. (13 March 2013) – In a first-ever briefing to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on solitary confinement in the Americas, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, yesterday called* on the Commission to investigate the practice of solitary confinement and its harmful effects in the Americas.

Mr. Méndez warned that there are insufficient safeguard mechanisms in the region for preventing, detecting, and responding to the use of solitary confinement, particularly in Latin America, and urged the Commission to push for stronger regulations on the use of solitary confinement.

“Despite the fact that many examples show that the region of the Americas is not an exception to the global trend of abuses in the use of solitary confinement, I am concerned about the general lack of official information and statistics on the use of solitary confinement,” Mr. Méndez said, recalling the harmful effects of this widespread practice he comprehensively documented in his 2011 global report to the UN General Assembly (see below).

“The use of solitary confinement can only be accepted under exceptional circumstances, and should only be applied as a last resort measure in which its length must be as short as possible, it should be duly communicated and it should offer minimum due process guarantees when it is used as a disciplinary sanction,” the Special Rapporteur said.

In response to questions from the Commission regarding the application of solitary confinement to particular categories of prisoners, particularly juveniles and persons with mental disabilities, the human rights expert stressed that solitary confinement “always constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and even torture when applied to these categories.”

He called for the absolute prohibition of solitary confinement on juveniles and persons with mental disabilities and for an equally absolute prohibition on indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement. For purposes of defining what constitutes prolonged solitary confinement, he suggested the benchmark of any term exceeding 15 days.

For the Special Rapporteur “persons under solitary confinement should always count with access to adequate remedies to question the reason and the length of the measure, and should always have access to legal counsel and medical assistance.”

“It is important for States to advance in modifying their legislation, policies and practices that are not in accordance with these standards,” the independent expert noted.

“Although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American System in general have a fundamental role in monitoring and guaranteeing the compliance of the penitentiary systems of the region with human rights standards, it is important for Governments to work on documenting and monitoring this issue through their national human rights institutions or similar bodies,” Mr. Méndez emphasized.

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 in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defence of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. Learn more, log on to:

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full submission to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (in Spanish):

Read the full report on solitary confinement of 5 August 2011 by the Special Rapporteur:

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

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For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

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