Imagine spending a month alone in a windowless cell the size of a small bathroom. Now multiply that by 100, and you can begin to understand the average period of solitary confinement endured by prisoners held in the Security House Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.
The SHU, as the unit is called, houses more than 1,000 men, most of them remaining in solitary confinement for years, even decades.
According to official prison statistics, more than 500 prisoners at the SHU (or about half the total population) have been held there for more than 10 years. What is more, 78 prisoners have been held at the SHU for more than 20 years.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit public interest law firm, filed a class action complaint in federal court last week on behalf of ten named plaintiffs who are incarcerated in the SHU, calling the SHU’s solitary confinement regime “inhumane and debilitating.” The plaintiffs, who had originally filed the case without legal assistance, have each been held in solitary confinement for between 11 and 22 years.
These numbers are stunning no matter how one looks at them. A recent European human rights court case condemned Russia for holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for three years, which, compared to the length of prisoners’ stays in the SHU, is a short stint. In the aggregate, prisoners held at the SHU spend thousands of years in their cells alone. It is a large-scale experiment in sensory deprivation and social isolation.
Communication as a Disciplinary Offense
The complaint paints a stark picture of daily life in the SHU. Prisoners in the SHU “normally spend between 22 and one-half and 24 hours a day in their cells. They are typically allowed to leave their cells only for ‘exercise’ and to shower.”
The cells are made entirely of concrete and measure approximately 80 square feet. They contain a concrete bed, a sink, and a toilet, as well as a concrete desk and stool. Prisoners’ personal belongings are extremely limited. The cell doors are made up of solid steel, not bars, and have small round perforations that allow a partial view into the hallway.
The only means prisoners have to communicate is to yell or speak loudly to their neighbors, which may be deemed to be a disciplinary offense.
“Exercise,” according to the complaint (which puts the word in quotes), takes place in “a barren, solid concrete exercise pen, known as the ‘dog run.’” Until last year, the exercise pen was empty. Following an organized hunger strike by prisoners, the authorities added a handball to the pen.
Phone calls are not allowed, except in exceptional circumstances like a death in the family, and even then permission to make a call is granted at the prison authorities’ discretion. The complaint describes how one of the plaintiffs, Gabriel Reyes, “was denied a telephone call home after his stepfather died, because he had been allowed a telephone call several months earlier when his biological father died.”
Family members are limited to non-contact visits, behind plexiglass, with communication taking place over a telephone handset. The prison gets few visitors, as it is located far from most prisoners’ home cities, near the state’s northern border with Oregon, and visiting hours are extremely limited. As the complaint explains, many prisoners have “been without face-to-face contact with people other than prison staff for decades.”
Prisoners have no access to recreational or vocational programming. Psychological counseling is minimal, despite the obvious mental health risks at issue. When one plaintiff requested mental health care, the complaint asserts, “he was referred to a ‘self-help’ library book.”
While most prisoners are held in solitary confinement, a few are double-celled. The complaint suggests that the only thing nearly as bad as solitary confinement is being locked in close quarters with one other person, with no possibility of leaving the room. “[D]ouble-celling,” the complaint says, “requires two strangers to live around-the-clock in intolerably cramped conditions, in a cell barely large enough for a single human being to stand or sit.”
No judge ever sentences a prisoner to serve time at the Pelican Bay SHU. Instead, it is the state prison bureaucracy that puts people there and keeps them there. California has a serious problem of gang violence, both in the prisons and beyond, and segregation in the SHU, where prisoners’ ability to act and communicate is extremely limited, is viewed as an effective control mechanism.
Prisoners end up at the SHU via a process called prison gang validation, which often relies on information provided by confidential informants. Prisoners who are believed to be associated with a gang—even without any indication of gang activity, or even actual gang membership—are “validated” as gang affiliates. They then can be placed in the SHU for an indefinite term.
The only real way to exit the SHU, short of being released from prison after serving one’s sentence(s), is to “debrief” to the prison authorities, i.e., to formally renounce any association with a gang and to report on other prisoners’ gang activity. This is an obviously dangerous option, and many prisoners refuse to try it.
After six years in the SHU, there is supposed to be another way out, but the complaint alleges that it does not operate as it should. Prisoners receive a six-year review to evaluate whether they are “active” with a gang or have gained “inactive” status. But, the complaint states, the review lacks seriousness, with the prison authorities pointing to reading material, artwork, and minor disciplinary offenses such as talking to other prisoners as grounds for denying inactive status.
The empty promise of the six-year review is especially damaging for prisoners who are eligible for parole. One such prisoner is George Ruiz, is a 69-year-old Latino man who has spent the last 28 years of his life in solitary confinement, 22 of those years at the SHU. Ruiz has been eligible for parole since 1993, but the parole board has reportedly told him that he will never obtain parole as long as he is held at the SHU.
A recent UN report, issued by the UN special rapporteur on torture, criticized this sort of indeterminate segregation. It explained that “[t]he feeling of uncertainty when not informed of the length of solitary confinement exacerbates the pain and suffering of the individuals who are subjected to it.” “Indefinite solitary confinement,” the report concluded, “should be abolished.”
The Outer Bounds of Psychological Tolerance
Conditions at the Pelican Bay SHU have been challenged in court before. In the early 1990s, a few years after the prison opened, a class action suit was brought on behalf of prisoners there. The resulting court decision found SHU conditions to be unconstitutional for mentally ill prisoners and prisoners who were at high risk of mental illness.
Although the court emphasized that the harsh conditions at the SHU “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate,” it did not find them to constitute cruel and unusual punishment for all prisoners held there. The court emphasized, however, that its ruling covered people who had been held at the SHU for a few years—mostly three years or less—and that it could “not even begin to speculate on the impact on inmates confined in the SHU for periods of 10 to 20 years or more.”
The present case poses exactly the situation that the previous court did not reach. It catalogues a range of psychological harms stemming from confinement at the SHU, including depression, nervousness, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, fears of an impending nervous breakdown, hallucinations, and multiple suicide attempts.
“I feel dead,” said Luis Esquivel, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, to his lawyers. “It’s been thirteen years since I have shaken someone’s hand and I fear I’ll forget the feel of human contact.”
Joanne Mariner, a Justia columnist, is the director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program. She is an expert on human rights, counterterrorism, and international humanitarian law. She is the author of the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.
- Prisoners in Solitary Confinement in Ohio Stage Two-Week Hunger Strike (moorbey.wordpress.com)
- Pelican Bay prisoners sue to end ‘torture’ of long-term solitary confinement (thegrio.com)
Chicago police officers have reportedly used a Taser stun gun on a black woman days away from giving birth and arrested her over a parking dispute.
Tiffany Rent, who is eight months pregnant, was tasered, dragged out of her car and forced to the ground and handcuffed by police officers on Wednesday outside a drug store for parking violation.
Rent was approached by officers in a parking lot and ticketed for parking in a handicapped space. According to police report she tore up the ticket and threw it at the officer.
The police report also said that, Rent attempted to take off after being fined, however she was shocked by a taser gun. Joseph Hobbs, the father of the child, was also arrested by police when he tried to intervene. He suffered a dislocated elbow during the arrest.
The superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, Garry McCarthy, said that the officers were not wrong in the way they arrested Rent and Hobbs, and the reason the officer used Taser was because “you can’t always tell whether somebody is pregnant.”
However, Rent told the Chicago Tribune that she was standing “at the squad car close enough for him to see that I was pregnant.”
Rent’s sister, Shareeta Rent, said the family believed that the police employed excessive force on a pregnant woman. “How could you do that to a pregnant woman? My niece and nephew are in the back seat of the car crying. They did that in front of her kids.”
A nursing supervisor at the Roseland Community Hospital ran tests on Rent later on Wednesday, saying the unborn child was in good health but the mother still has fears as she formerly lost two children during pregnancy.
- Chicago cops Taser 8-month pregnant woman for parking violation (blacklistednews.com)
The Human Cost of the War on Terror
In the early days of the ‘War on Terror,’ US General Tommy Franks declared, “We don’t do body counts.” He was referring, of course, to the dead of Afghanistan. That the names of 9/11 victims have been appropriately written in stone, only makes it doubly striking that the war waged in their names generates little interest on non-US or NATO civilian deaths. In fact, a war now in its 11th year, comprising the invasion and occupation of two countries, as well as the ongoing bombing of at least three more, has not produced any holistic studies on its direct and indirect casualties.
That a global war can rage so long with no official will to ascertain the number of ‘others’ killed is indicative of the manner in which the cost of war is calculated by those states prosecuting it. Non-US and NATO dead, maimed, disappeared or displaced can’t be part of the equation if official policy is not to count. That there appears to be little public will to change that policy speaks of a more broadly worrying attitude toward ‘others,’ particularly Muslims. The UN and some NGO’s are attempting to count, however, mostly in the variety of local contexts engulfed in the conflict. Despite the hurdles of official obfuscation and public indifference, a catalogue of deadly consequences has begun to emerge.
Beginning in Afghanistan, most commonly cited studies on the 2001 invasion find that approximately 4,000 to 8,000 Afghani civilians died as a direct result of military operations. There are no figures for 2003-05, but in 2006 Human Rights Watch recorded just under 1,000 civilians killed in fighting. From 2007 to July 2011, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tallies at least 10,292 non-combatants killed. These figures, it should be emphasized, do include indirect deaths or injuries. Some thing of the scope of indirect deaths can be gleaned from a Guardian article – the most thorough journalistic report on the subject – which calculated that at least 20,000 more died as a result of displacement and famine due to the disruption in food supplies in the first year of the war alone. As well, according to Amnesty International, approximately 250,000 people fled to other countries in 2001 and at least 500,000 more have been internally displaced since.
Moving to Iraq, the Iraq Body Count project records approximately 115,000 civilians killed in the cross-fire from 2003 to August 2011. However, the World Health Organization’s Iraq Family Health Survey reports a figure of approximately 150,000 in just the first three years of the occupation. With indirect deaths added, The Lancet Study placed the estimate at approximately 600,000 in the same period. Moreover, an Opinion Research Business study estimated 1,000,000 violent deaths to have occurred by mid-2007. In addition, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported approximately 2,000,000 Iraqis displaced to other countries and 2,000,000 more internally displaced as of 2007. There is no solid information on indirect death or injury rates, but the documented collapse of the Iraqi healthcare system and infrastructure more generally (foremost in the region before 1991) does not suggest anything less than another atrocity.
Beyond the two states under occupation, the ‘War on Terror’ spills into a number of neighboring countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Prime weapons deployed in these theatres have been US ‘drones,’ special operations groups, intelligence agents and the governments/armed forces of the countries involved. Given the often extra-judicial and covert nature of this theatre, calculating casualties is hampered by the virtual absence of independent data. Indeed, this is also a problem in Afghanistan and Iraq, but even so, considering only ‘drones’ thought to have been used in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the numbers of strikes is agreed to be on the rise. To date, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that at least 357 strikes have occurred in Pakistan between 2004 and June 2012 (more than 300 under the Obama administration). At least 2,464 people have been killed, including a minimum of 484 civilians (168 children). The Washington Post adds 38 strikes resulting in 241 deaths (56 civilian) in Yemen. There are no figures for Somalia, but the New York Times confirms that operations have been ongoing since at least 2007.
Proponents of the war, official and public, will rush to retort that many of the citations in this article list most civilian deaths as the work of enemy combatants. But how can anyone confirm this when dependent on such a dearth of study? And as best highlighted by the ‘drone’ campaign, how can anyone transparently distinguish between civilians and combatants, when the latter’s assassins are also their judges? Indeed, even if accepted at face value, these attacks make the US government one of the most prolific, self-professed ‘target killers’ in history. Moreover, as a representative from UMANA commented on his study, “if the non-combatant status of one or more victim(s) remains under significant doubt, such deaths are not included in the overall number of civilian casualties. Thus, there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is under-reporting civilian casualties.” In fact, such problems are admitted by the authors of every study.
Pasting this patchy set of statistics together, the bottom end of the total non-US and NATO civilian deaths exceeds 140,000. The top end easily reaches 1,100,000. That’s 14,000 to 110,000 per year. To put these figures in some context, it is worth recalling that 40,000 civilians were killed by the Nazi ‘Blitz’ on Britain during WWII. As well, it should be recalled that in both low and high scenarios, figures for direct deaths in Afghanistan for 2003-5, and indirect deaths from 2003 to the present, are not available. Furthermore, civilian deaths caused by means other than drones, such as renditions and disappearances, are not counted from any arena, and casualties stemming from the military campaigns of proxies (e.g., the governments of Pakistan or Yemen) have not been tallied. The number alive, but injured, orphaned or otherwise disenfranchised, let alone those tortured in public and private prisons across the world, is also not tolled. And finally, the suffering of millions of displaced persons from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere remains incalculable.
What has been counted here, even though tragically incomplete, illumines the reason US and NATO officials are reticent to publically do the same. To consider the staggering human cost of the ‘War on Terror’ would mean admitting that ‘terrorism’ is a two-way street and states, not militias, drive the heaviest weapons. General Franks’ preference not to count bodies is egregious, but unsurprising. That his lack of interest is echoed in the public spheres of the US and NATO countries, exposes the more astonishing consent (manufactured or not) of general populations, at least in the case of these Muslim victims. Nothing less than this official and public indifference explains the absence of any holistic study on civilian casualties, particularly while mourning the nearly 3,000 civilians killed on 9/11 and in whose name the ‘War on Terror’ is still waged.
M. Reza Pirbhai is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Louisiana State University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 579 civilians killed in four months in Afghanistan: UNAMA (nation.com.pk)
Expelling Diplomats undermines Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, needlessly endangering Americans
Beirut – The recent massacre has whipped up a new wave of outrage at the claimed brutality of Syria’s government. Syrian envoys were kicked out of some western capitals, more financial sanctions slapped on the regime in Damascus, and more furious demands are being made for a regime change toppling Bashar al-Assad and more calls for military intervention issued.
The civilized world kicking out Syrian diplomats was to be the thin reed of straw that would certainly break the camel’s back in Damascus’ Presidential Palace.
However, expelling Syrian diplomats, who no one is even suggesting had anything to do with the massacre at Houla, constitutes a politically cheap feel good knee jerk reaction to the horrific images from the slaughter at Houla. Certainly the images of chopped bodies and that of a precious baby with a pacifier in its mouth and a bullet hole in its temple reminded many of us of the My Lai, Sabra-Shatila, Srebrenica, and Rwanda massacres to note just a few. Encouraging a global reaction, some in Washington vowed that the Obama doctrine and the right to protect (R2P) could not allow the Syrian regime to remain in power and Houla was to be the game changer.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 signed by 186 countries constructed a frame for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enables diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion, harassment or politically motivated expulsions by the host country. Its articles are a cornerstone of modern international relations.
While Article 9 does grant the host nation the right to declare a particular member of the diplomatic staff to be persona non grata, the understanding of the drafters of the Vienna Convention and the trauvaux preparatoire make plain that the provision is to be used solely for high crimes and under no circumstances to embarrass or trivialize the sending government or its diplomatic mission. The US action with respect to expelling Syrian diplomats does both.
As diplomacy is the practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties, and agreements, it is difficult to take seriously White House and NATO claims of a preference for diplomacy rather than war with Syria, while they lead the campaign to expel the very Syrian diplomats necessary for dialogue and negotiations.
The premises of the US diplomatic mission in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, came under attack during the night of 6/5/12. The US embassy is Damascus had been closed earlier in the crisis, and the US Embassy in Beirut is on near lock down status with plans to close and evacuate staff on one hours’ notice if deemed prudent. These events highlight the importance of respecting the 1961 Vienna Convention and not expelling diplomats as political gamesmanship because the rash expulsions may not only generate unintended consequences, but inevitably invite retaliatory expulsions. Hence the Syrian government declared 17 US and Western diplomats, persona non grata earlier this week. Syria’s much respected Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Makdad told the media in Damascus that, “We waited for so long for the other side to correct their policies and offer the needed support to Annan’s plan and the observers’ mission. But we regret that we had to take this measure because they do not want this mission to succeed.”
The gratuitous chest thumping political theatre led by Washington also undermines international treaty law while eroding respect for the nearly universally agreed to protections of diplomats, envoys, embassies and consulates.
Hopefully the White House and its allies will act immediately to contain this latest provocation and lift their diplomatic expulsion edicts against Syria. The Obama administration ought also to engage in dialogue to resolve its differences with the Syrian government mindful of Kofi Annan’s just announced revised 6 point peace proposal and on a basis of “principles of equality and mutual respect.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and can be contacted c/o email@example.com
- Coordinated Western Campaign to Expel Syrian Envoys (alethonews.wordpress.com)
In its 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights released June 6, 2012, the International Trade Union Confederation found that Latin America remains the most dangerous region of the world for trade unionists, with Colombia again leading the world, followed by Guatemala.
The ITUC says 29 trade unionists were reported murdered in Colombia in 2011, with 10 more in Guatemala, together accounting for a bit over half of the 76 trade unionists reported murdered in 2011. Colombia’s share of total murders dropped significantly, however, reflecting a decreased in 2010 murders of 51, representing 55% of the 92 trade unionists murdered in 2010.
Ironically, Colombia and Guatemala are also the two countries in Latin America that have been at the heart of U.S. policy on worker rights and Free Trade Agreements, with the Obama Administration pushing forward with implementation of the Colombia FTA in mid-May despite insufficient progress on worker rights while continuing to deal with a CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) labor complaint on Guatemala filed over four years ago that has yielded little progress even as violence against Guatemala unionists has escalated.
In a welcome and some say historic development, the conservative Guatemalan agribusiness sector has called on its own government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violence that has been directed at the country’s largest union, Sitrabi, which represents Del Monte banana workers and is a filer of the CAFTA labor complaint. Sitrabi reports that seven members of its union members have been murdered since April 2011. The Camara del Agro released its remarkable letter [ English translation here] in late May; no response from the government has been reported as yet.
- Colombia: Obama’s Bloodiest Betrayal? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Progress or Promises? Free Trade and Labor Rights in Colombia (alethonews.wordpress.com)
A senior United Nations human rights official says the killing of civilians in non-UN-sanctioned airstrikes by the US assassination drones in Pakistan is illegal and in violation of human rights.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay made the remarks on Thursday at the end of a four-day visit to Pakistan, where more than 150 people have died in twenty US drone attacks since the beginning of the year.
“Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law,” she added.
The commissioner noted that in her opinion “the indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians in any circumstances” was in violation of international norms of human rights.
Pillay also called for a UN investigation into civilian casualties, which she said were difficult to track.
“I suggested to the government that they invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions and he will be able to investigate some of the incidents,” she said.
Washington claims its drone strikes target militants, though casualty figures clearly indicate that Pakistani civilians are the main victims of the non-UN-sanctioned attacks.
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned the US Charge d’affaires Richard Hoagland over Washington’s continued drone attacks saying they violate Pakistan sovereignty.
However, the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Washington would continue its drone attacks in the country despite complaints from Islamabad.
While lawmakers work themselves up into a tizzy that the White House might be leaking classified information to make President Barack Obama look good (and wouldn’t it just be the living end if true, given Obama’s habit of prosecuting leakers?), Sen. John Kerry asks whether it’s appropriate for the media to actually let the public know what’s going on. Via Politico:
Sen. John Kerry on Wednesday questioned whether The New York Times should have published explosive stories last week about President Obama ordering cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear program.
“I personally think there is a serious question whether or not that served our interest and whether the public had to know,” Kerry, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told reporters. “To me it was such a nitty-gritty fundamental national security issue. And I don’t see how the public interest is well served by it. I do see how other interests outside the United States are well served by it.” …
Earlier, Kerry said he was “disturbed” by the leaking of classified information cited in the Times story, saying it endangers U.S. national security and “begs retaliation” from America’s enemies. The chairman said he couldn’t understand how an American citizen could leak classified information that could potentially put the country at risk.
It’s not the act itself that “begs retaliation,” you see, it’s the reporting of it. The fact that there could be blowback for targeting a foreign nation’s nuclear program with a computer virus doesn’t mean you possibly shouldn’t do it. It means you should make sure you don’t tell your own public. After all, how would Iran ever conclude that the United States and Israel could be working together to design a virus to shut down their nuclear ambitions? Anybody could be the culprit! Anybody at all! They would never have figured it out had The New York Times kept their big traps shut.
Or, perhaps, they might have gotten a clue from this 2010 story from The Guardian that suggests Israel was responsible for it and that Stuxnet was pretty obviously designed to target Iran. Or maybe this story from Forbes.com from 2010 that talks about the suspicions and various theories that the United States and Israel were the sources of the virus. Or perhaps this lengthy Vanity Fair investigative report from from last year that says, “[T]here is vanishingly little doubt that the United States played a role in creating the worm.” The fact is, The New York Times story merely revealed the truth that anybody who followed computer security news already suspected, and Iran doesn’t seem like the kind of nation that needs a metaphorical smoking gun before casting blame.
More to the point, launching the virus itself could ultimately give Iran (or others, because Stuxnet, like every other government venture, immediately got out of hand and ended up in places where it wasn’t meant to be) the tools to bring about that blowback Kerry is so worried about. Via The Christian Science Monitor:
Although Stuxnet is estimated to have eventually destroyed as many as 1,000 high-speed Iranian gas centrifuges designed to enrich uranium, its importance was far larger than that, [German cybersecurity expert Ralph] Langner warned. It demonstrated that a cyberweapon could physically destroy critical infrastructure, and that process could also work in reverse.
“One important difference between a cyber offensive weapon and some kind of advanced bomb, for example, is that when the bomb blows up you can’t examine or reverse-engineer it,” says Joel Brenner, a former national counterintelligence executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“Once you find the malware, on the other hand, once you find the code, you can see how it was done,” he says. “So we are going to see more operations of this kind – and the US’s critical infrastructure is undoubtedly going to be targeted. I still don’t think that the owners and operators of most of that infrastructure understand the gravity of this threat.”
The possibility that Stuxnet could come back to haunt us does seem to meet a certain “need to know” threshold. The New York Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet responded to Kerry via Politico:
“Our job is to report issues in the public interest, and this piece certainly meets that standard,” Dean Baquet, the Times managing editor, said in a statement to POLITICO. “As always with sensitive stories, we described the piece to the government before publication. No one suggested we not publish. There was a request to omit some highly technical details. We complied with the request after concluding it was not a significant part of the piece.”
Well, that ought to add more ammo to those who believe the White House is actually causing the leaks.
The so-called opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) urged anti-Damascus militants inside Syria to “step up military assaults” on security forces.
“The Syrian National Council calls on the Free Syrian Army to step up military assaults on regime forces,” the SNC said in a statement issued on Thursday.
The group also called for demonstrations on Thursday and Friday to “denounce the recent killings in the central province of Hama.”
Earlier on Thursday, the SNC claimed that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “massacred” about 100 people, including 20 women and 20 children, in the village of al-Kubeir in Hama on June 6.
However, the Syrian government rejected the claim in a televised statement on Thursday, saying, “What a few media have reported on what happened in al-Kubeir, in the Hama region, is completely false.”
“A terrorist group committed a heinous crime in the Hama region which claimed nine victims. The reports by the media are contributing to spilling the blood of Syrians,” the government statement added.