The foremost torture investigator at the United Nations has expressed concern over worsening conditions in prisons throughout the US and hopes to visit California facilities, where a judge has granted state lawmakers more time to reduce overcrowding.
Juan Mendez, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, met with The Los Angeles Times editorial board, where he called for greater oversight into the California prison system. The California Department of Corrections has long been the target of human rights groups for its policy of housing inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.
“We should have more justification” for putting inmates in isolation, Mendez said. While correctional officers are supposed to use solitary confinement as a last resort for delinquent prisoners, it has been commonly adopted as the preferred method of punishment.
“We should put the burden on the state that this is the proper way to do things, and we should all be more skeptical,” Mendez said Friday.
Mendez previously expressed interest in touring California prisons in May 2013. The request needs authorization from the US Department of Justice and California Governor Jerry Brown, yet Mendez said his requests have gone unacknowledged. A US State Department spokeswoman told The Times that officials are “open to continuing to discuss” a visit from Mendez.
“The conditions for visits to detention facilities in the United States are all determined on a case-by-case basis,” spokeswoman Laura Seal said.
Mendez said he would need the power to meet with any inmate he so chooses and would not accept an agreement granting him only partial access to a facility. He condemned any policy that keeps inmates in their cell for 22 hours a day and maintained that no mentally ill inmate should be locked up alone, an oft-voiced complaint from human rights groups.
“Sometimes you negotiate all the way to the cell door,” he said.
The conditions in California were marked earlier this year by a 60-day hunger strike that reverberated throughout the state. Thousands of inmates refused their daily meals to protest the state’s policy of isolating gang members for years - and sometimes decades.
As many as 10,000 inmates are thought to be held in solitary confinement, also known as the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), raising the possibility that thousands of convicts will be released into the public with serious socialization issues or a mental illness not present when they were first put behind bars.
Unfortunately, life within a prison’s general population may only be a marginal improvement because of vast overcrowding.
California prison facilities operated at 200 percent capacity for over a decade but authorities have slowly reduced that number after a federal judge deemed the conditions constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” The California Department of Corrections was operating at 143.8 percent of capacity as of September 2013.
Authorities have been slow in finding a way to reduce overcrowding, to the extent that a three-judge panel said in 2011 that the state would need to begin releasing thousands of inmates early. Over 1,000 prisoners were released early over the past year in preparation for the December 31, 2013 deadline. Yet that date has since been moved back twice - first to January 27, 2014, then again to February 24, 2014.
Much of the problem lies with inadequate medical treatment, according to defense attorneys.
“Prisoners are getting injured and dying because of poor care,” Don Specter, a long time defense lawyer who has spent years petitioning the state, told The Los Angeles Times. “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has never taken its obligation to provide basic healthcare seriously.”