California’s Pelican Bay Prison has come under fire for violating international laws regarding the treatment of their prisoners, specifically in regards to the isolation units at the prison. After the prison was visited by Amnesty International researchers, it became clear that Pelican Bay Prison is blatantly violating the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Some of these basic rights include “access to natural light, fresh air, adequate exercise, [and] rehabilitation programs.” Furthermore, “[t]here’s an absolute obligation, under international law, for the authorities to treat prisoners humanely.”
Pelican Bay Prison has clearly breached these UN standards, as evidenced by the conditions the prisoners are exposed to while in isolation, and the length of time they spend while in isolation. In addition to the fact that those in isolation do not have access to work or rehabilitation programs, it was also found that
“Prisoners in isolation are confined to at least 22 and a half hours a day in cells measuring fewer than eight square metres. In Pelican Bay State Prison… inmates are confined alone in windowless cells with poor access to natural light. Exercise is limited to [an] hour and a half a day, alone in a bare, concrete yard with 20 foot high walls with only a patch of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof.”
According to figures from 2011, over 500 prisoners have spent 10 or more years in isolation, over 200 prisoners have spent over 15 years in isolation, and 78 of the prisoners currently in isolation have spent over 20 years in isolation.
While isolation is reserved for extreme cases, over 3,000 prisoners are currently being held in isolation. Those prisoners who find themselves in isolation tend to have mental illness, end up in isolation due to “minor rule infractions,” and over 2,000 prisoners currently in isolation are there because they are “members or associates of prison gangs.”
Lack of access to light, fresh air, and human contact is no doubt a cruel form of punishment, but is it totally unnecessary? Some questions to consider when looking into the issue of isolation are whether there are certain cases or people who should be confined to such constraints? Who are they, and should certain types of people not be allowed to go to isolation (such as those with mental illness or those who violate minor rules)? Should there be a time limit on being held in isolation?