ARUN RATH, HOST:
Thousands of prisoners in California could be moved out of solitary confinement thanks to a landmark legal settlement this week. With few exceptions, the settlement will limit the amount of time state inmates can spend in solitary. Some California prisoners have been isolation for years. In one instance, an inmate spent 43 years in solitary. For more on this, we reached Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur for torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. He was an expert witness in the case. I asked him what the California settlement means for the debate over solitary confinement.
JUAN MENDEZ: Well, I think it's part of a general trend towards recognizing that solitary confinement can be a very serious violation of constitutional and even international human rights. And the fact that California is pledging to release about 90 percent of the 3,000 or 4,000 people who were in solitary confinement are going to be put into the general population. That, in and of itself, is a great achievement. I will still have to see how it's implemented because the corrections department reserves for itself the possibility of using solitary confinement for people who breach disciplinary rules and that, in principle, is not wrong. I mean, sometimes you have to isolate people. But it has to be for a limited term.
RATH: You were an expert witness in this case. You toured the Pelican Bay State Prison in California. Can you talk about what you saw during that visit that caused your concerns?
MENDEZ: Yeah, I was appointed an expert witness for the plaintiffs, and I went to Pelican Bay, and I interviewed the named plaintiffs to get a sense of what it's like to live 24 hours a day in the regime of solitary confinement. And then I wrote a report to the court on how those conditions are affected by international standards that the United States is bound by, especially in the convention against torture that the United States has signed and ratified.
RATH: So can you explain your recommendations you made to the court based on what you saw and based on international law?
MENDEZ: The uniqueness of California is that solitary confinement is used to punish or to isolate people who are deemed to belong to gangs. They spend 22 and a half to 23 hours a day in a cell by themselves. It's true that they have reading and writing materials and television and radio. But that's the kind of conditions that can inflict on an inmate - especially when it's prolonged solitary confinement or indefinite solitary confinement - it inflicts the kind of mental pain and suffering that is associated with the prohibition on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the international law. And in the most severe cases, it can even be considered torture.
RATH: The union representing prison guards has said that ending solitary confinement could make prisons more dangerous. What would you say that?
MENDEZ: The fact that prisons are dangerous places, of course, stands to reason, but that doesn't mean that the only way to deal with that is prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.
RATH: Now, you toured - as we talked about - the Pelican Bay State Prison here in California and I think some other prisons in the U.S. to provide expert testimony in cases like this. But you've never visited U.S. prison in your U.N. role. Could you explain that distinction?
MENDEZ: Yes, that's right. I mean, I visited Pelican Bay and a prison near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; in both cases, as an expert witness in litigation. But I have asked the United States government for an invitation in my actual capacity as a special rapporteur on torture. Unfortunately, this has been pending now for two and a half years or so. But I - you know, living in the United States, I had never thought that it would be so difficult to get the United States to invite me in the conditions that the Human Rights Council have set up - that are the same as every other country that invites me.
I've been visiting prisons in Morocco, Tunisia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, Gambia, Mexico and Brazil. And it's kind of baffling that the United States takes so long to answer. I cannot say that I've been denied a visit, but my term is coming to an end a little more than a year from now, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to visit prisons in my capacity as a special rapporteur and, of course, on conditions that I can accept.
RATH: Juan Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur for torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Mr. Mendez, thanks very much.
MENDEZ: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much for the invitation.
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