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An Open Letter to President Obama

ImageStudies would likewise confirm that the negative effects of prolonged solitary confinement far outweigh the positive.

Image

SuperMax facility in Wisconsin

EDITOR'S NOTE: During the recent election campaign, President Obama was noted for repeatedly voicing his disapproval of extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo Bay, particularly in light of torture being used during the interrogation of terrorism suspects. Nevertheless, no attention was given to the fact that "more than 30 states across America operate Supermax-like facilities which use 23-hour lockdown and long-term isolation", in spite of long-term solitary confinement being utterly condemned by the the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In the letter, Islamic Human Rights Commission Chair Massoud Shadjareh expresses that if torture "is never ok" for "terrorism suspects in US custody, it must be no less true for American citizens serving out sentences in the US penal system."

Dear President Barack Obama,

The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) would firstly like to congratulate your historic election win and presidency, and welcome the important campaign promises you have made, particularly on the human rights front. In your campaign speeches and statements throughout the presidential race, you made unmistakeably clear the position of an Obama administration on the use of torture – "rejecting torture without equivocation" and that "it is never ok". If this is the case for foreign terrorists and terrorism suspects in US custody, it must be no less true for American citizens serving out sentences in the US penal system. By this, I wish to draw your attention to the widespread use of 23-hour solitary confinement within the American prison system.

The well-documented history of modern solitary confinement can be traced back to the 1820s, in the model implemented at Cherry Hill Prison (Eastern State Penitentiary) in Philadelphia. What was intended to be a reformative program soon proved to create suicidal/insane inmates as opposed to reformed members of society. Solitary confinement was largely abandoned within few decades to follow.

More recent studies would likewise confirm that the negative effects of prolonged solitary confinement far outweigh the positive. An October 2008 interim report by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, found that "solitary confinement may cause serious psychological and sometimes physiological ill effects." The report further stated that "between one third and as many as 90 percent of prisoners experience adverse symptoms in solitary confinement", with resultant symptoms ranging from "insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and psychosis". Likewise, such symptoms were "regardless of time and place, and regardless of pre-existing personal factors".

As such, the United Nations Human Rights Committee stipulated that "use of prolonged solitary confinement may amount to a breach of article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (general comment No. 20 (1992))." The Special Rapporteur's final conclusion was that "solitary confinement should be absolutely prohibited" in circumstances including "death row and life-sentenced prisoners by virtue of their sentence." Similar to that, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirmed that "prolonged solitary confinement constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment prohibited under article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights (Castillo Petruzzi et al., judgement of 30 May 1999)."

It is of urgent concern that more than 30 states across America operate Supermax-like facilities which use 23-hour lockdown and long-term isolation, as a 1999 Department of Justice report found. The study also reported that some states house more than 20 percent of their inmates like this. In view of Manfred Nowak's report, such practice "should be absolutely prohibited".

While the issue of widespread permanent/long-term isolation facilities is sufficiently worrying, there is the equally unsettling phenomenon of political prisoners being unjustifiably transferred to such facilities in absence of due process. Kindly consider here the exemplary case of Imam Jamil Al-Amin, who currently lives under permanent 23-hour solitary confinement at Colorado's USP Florence ADMAX, which has been dubbed as both the "Guantanamo Bay of the mainland" and "a clean version of hell". Al-Amin did not have any federal charges or convictions, and had a pending habeas corpus in Georgia, his home state and that of his conviction. In fact, even the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville had been likewise holding Al-Amin under 23-solitary confinement in spite of him not having any violations which could warrant it.

Both the basis of Al-Amin's 23-solitary confinement at Reidsville and that of his transfer to a permanent-lockdown federal facility are being challenged by Al-Amin's defence. However, just as being transferred over a thousand miles from his legal defense would naturally hinder his pending habeas and other appeals, the 23-hour lock-down is literally torture.

If torturing terrorism suspects, as you have clearly expressed, is a betrayal of core American values, we urge you upon your taking office to take appropriate and necessary actions toward ending the widespread use of long-term and permanent solitary confinement in American prisons.

Sincerely,
Massoud Shadjareh
Chair
Islamic Human Rights Commission

About Massud Shadjareh

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