ACLU of Montana Asks UN to Intervene in Solitary Confinement Case
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Montana today asked a United Nations Special Rapporteur to intervene on behalf of a mentally ill prisoner, “Robert Doe,” who was placed in solitary confinement in the Montana State Prison when he was 17 and has been subjected to abuse so traumatizing that he has twice attempted to kill himself by biting through his wrist to puncture a vein. The request was made in a letter sent to Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
“The conditions of Robert’s confinement are so appalling that they flout universally recognized human rights standards, including his absolute right to be free from torture and other inhumane forms of treatment,” said Steven Watt, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. “Montana state prison officials are obliged to uphold these standards, which require Robert’s immediate release from solitary confinement and provision of treatment for the remainder of his sentence that will foster his reform, rehabilitation and eventual reintegration back into society.”
Robert was sent to the Montana State Prison in 2008 when he was 16 years old, and has spent nearly half that time in solitary confinement. He has been Tasered, pepper-sprayed, stripped naked in view of other inmates, deprived of human contact and disciplined through tortuous “behavior modification plans” that deny him proper bedding, clothing and recreation. The ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit in December against the state of Montana and the Montana Department of Corrections over Robert’s illegal, inhumane and degrading treatment. Today’s letter asks that the U.N. Special Rapporteur undertake an immediate review of Robert’s case, advise Montana state prison officials to refrain from subjecting him to inhumane conditions of confinement and treat him in a manner consistent with applicable international human rights laws and standards.
Update: After reading this news item, I was curious about whether there is a precedent for seeking this type of intervention in a U.S. case and what the Special Rapporteur on Torture does, exactly. Although I would welcome comments from readers better versed in international law, I did track down this article in which the current Special Rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, discusses his work. He describes his role as mainly fact-finding; so other than shedding light on conditions of detention, I’m not sure what authority he has to “intervene” in particular cases. I see a few mentions in the article of attempted fact-finding missions at Guantanamo, but no mention of any other specific missions in the U.S. My guess is that the ACLU is hoping with its letter to draw attention to this horrific case, more than it is actually requesting or hoping for specific legal action, but as always, I welcome corrections from readers who know better. In case the link to the article is behind a firewall for non-university affiliates, the full cite is Manfred Nowak, Fact-finding on Torture and Ill-Treatment and Conditions of Detention, 1 J. Human Rights Practice 101 (2009).