7 Vienna J. on Int'l Const. L. 415 (2013)
Torture in US Jails and Prisons: An Analysis of Solitary Confinement under International Law

handle is hein.journals/vioincl7 and id is 417 raw text is: ICL Journal I Vol 7 | 4/2013 | Articles

Torture in US Jails and Prisons:
An Analysis of Solitary Confinement
Under International Law
Anna Conley*
Abstract: One of the most serious human rights violations today is occurring throughout
the US. In US jails and prisons, individuals are held in solitary confinement for weeks,
months and even years. Solitary confinement can cause significant psychological damage,
including cognitive delays, increased suspicion and paranoia, increased anxiety, fear, ag-
gression and hostility, heightened feelings of helplessness and depression, and increased
thoughts and attempts at self-mutilation and suicide. Many prisoners held in this severe
form of isolation are juveniles or individuals with serious mental illness, to whom it is par-
ticularly damaging. Although solitary confinement is common in the rest of the world, no-
where is it more prevalent as a long-term prisoner management tool than in the United
States. US courts have found that solitary confinement is a violation of the Eighth Amend-
ment to the US Constitution in certain situations, yet the practice persists.
As a global movement against solitary confinement grows, the United Nations and re-
gional human rights tribunals have spoken out against the practice. A robust body of inter-
national case law has defined the contours of when solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman
or degrading treatment, and the instances in which it is torture. International bodies pro-
hibit solitary confinement for juveniles, prisoners with mental illness, and prisoners on
death row or with life sentences. International tribunals generally find solitary confinement
for all prisoners contrary to applicable law where it constitutes incommunicado detention,
where it is unnecessarily prolonged without justification, and where the totality of condi-
tions of confinement cross a threshold into unacceptable cruelty.
As international law prohibiting solitary confinement crystallizes, the practice in the United
States may be curtailed through reliance on international law by US judges. Further, the
US executive may take an increased interest in curbing solitary confinement to avoid repu-
tational damage among the global community.
Keywords: solitary confinement, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, prison,
incarceration.
'I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end
and no beginning; there is only one's mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a
dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.
I. Introduction
The incarceration of thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement in US jails and
prisons, many of whom are juveniles or mentally ill, is a large-scale human rights viola-
* The views expressed herein are the author's alone, and do not reflect the policy of the ACLU or the
ACLU of Montana.
1 Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom (1994) 47

@ Verlag Osterreich

415

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