UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez [official profile] on Monday urged [press release] the US to immediately end the solitary confinement imposed in 1972 on a former Black Panther. Albert Woodfox [AI backgrounder] was serving a prison sentence for armed robbery in 1972, when he and another inmate Herman Wallace were charged and convicted [AP report] of fatally stabbing a guard. The men were first moved to isolation in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and later to "closed-cell restriction" at state jails. Woodfox typically spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, in a cell that is approximately 8 feet by 12 feet. Mendez stated that the "use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law," and he has repeatedly requested an invitation to visit US jails, including state prisons in California, in order to make a personal assessment of prison conditions within the country. Regarding solitary confinement in general, Mendez said, "Persons held in solitary confinement should always be allowed to challenge the reasons and the length of the regime, and should always have access to legal counsel and medical assistance." Mendez also reiterated his call on the US to adopt concrete measures that will eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement in any circumstances.
The legality of solitary confinement has been an ongoing debate in the US. Last month Mendez stated in a report to the UN General Assembly that governments should ban solitary confinement [JURIST report] for juveniles and prisoners with mental disabilities. Mendez told the assembly members that governments should impose solitary confinement only in exceptional circumstances and for short periods of time. In June at least 400 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California initiated a hunger strike [JURIST report] in protest of solitary confinement. Inmates of Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), a long-term isolation ward where one-third of the prison's population is held in solitary confinement, are the instigators of the strike, and most of the strikers from other prisons are inmates in solitary confinement. In January 2011 the Washington Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that holding death row inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely is not an impermissible increase [JURIST report] in the severity of punishment.