Human rights attorneys urge UN to review the solitary confinement of Black Americans

A group of human rights attorneys have filed a joint submission urging the United Nations to review abusive solitary confinement practices used in the U.S. against Black Americans.

The submission, which comes ahead of U.N. officials’ April trip to the U.S. to review issues related to racial justice and equality in law enforcement, details the physical and mental health repercussions of solitary confinement.

The visit is part of a four-point agenda to end systemic racism and human rights violations by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent. It comes after the Biden administration extended an invitation to the U.N. in December.

“A lot of times there’s a focus on pretrial work and bail reform, which is incredibly important. But sometimes we lose sight of what happens to people post-conviction,” said Delia Addo-Yobo, staff attorney for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights U.S. Advocacy and Litigation program, one of the organizations involved in the submission.

“More often than not, the people who are put in custody, pretrial or post-conviction, they’re returning to society, they’re coming back home and it’s really tragic that they’re having these deep psychological and physical wounds placed upon them.”

More than a third of people held in solitary confinement become psychotic or suicidal within the first 15 days, according to the submission. Those who have been subjected to solitary confinement are 78 percent more likely to die by suicide within a year of being released from prison.

There have also been reports of those who have spent time in solitary confinement experiencing hypertension, chronic headaches, trembling, sweaty palms, extreme dizziness and heart palpitations.

Solitary confinement can also exacerbate pre-existing conditions and cause hypersensitivity to light and eyesight deterioration.

Because of these effects, the submission says, solitary confinement is considered torture under international law.

Addo-Yobo told The Hill one of the reasons the submission focused on Black people is because not only are they more likely to face incarceration than white Americans, they are also more likely to be placed in solitary confinement.

Black men make up 40.5 percent of the total male prison population and more than 43 percent of men in solitary confinement, according to a 2019 study by the Correctional Leaders Association and the Liman Center at Yale Law School. Meanwhile, Black women make up only 21.5 percent of the total female prison population but 42 percent of women in solitary confinement.

“The United States also has a very long and unfortunately active history of weaponizing solitary confinement against Black people, Black political prisoners and people exercising their constitutional rights,” Addo-Yobo said.

The submission specifically mentions the “Angola 3”: For decades, Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King were held in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, a former slave plantation, as punishment for their membership in the Black Panther Party. Woodfox survived 44 years in solitary confinement, the longest a person has been held in isolation in the United States.

“There’s little evidence to show that solitary confinement improves safety in the jails and prisons, and there’s actually evidence that shows that it has the opposite effect,” Addo-Yobo said. “It doesn’t keep people safer while they’re in jail. It doesn’t keep prison guards or correctional officers safe from jail. And it doesn’t keep people who are incarcerated safe while they’re there, either.”

In fact, studies have found that recidivism rates for those leaving solitary confinement were 35 percent higher than those who had not been held in solitary confinement.

Addo-Yobo said she hopes the submission will highlight the work of organizations trying to reform solitary confinement rules, including those working to pass legislation akin to the International Mandela Rules, which would prohibit those who are incarcerated from spending more than 15 days in solitary confinement.

She also wants to see mandatory public data reporting on how long and how many are in solitary confinement in local, state and federal prisons and jails, youth centers and immigration detention centers.

“We also hopefully want to tell the stories of folks who are suffering because this is an everyday occurrence, and we would like to see this practice banned, especially as a form of punishment for prolonged periods of time,” Addo-Yobo said.

That includes an immediate ban on solitary confinement for those who have disabilities and for young people, she added.

“We want the United States to join the rest of the world in banning and strictly limiting the use of solitary confinement,” Addo-Yobo said. “It’s torture, and I believe the United States is better than torture.”

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