Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

ACLU of Montana Asks UN to Intervene in Solitary Confinement Case

with 4 comments

[Update after the jump] According to an ACLU press release, the ACLU of Montana appealed to the UN today for help in a tragic case (the ACLU’s letter can be downloaded here):

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).


Written by sara

February 17, 2010 at 12:12 pm

4 Responses

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  1. What a bunch of HOGWASH calling in the UN. This is the United States of America not the United states of the UN. Get real. Don’t assume that all the people agree with the aclu, in fact you have a real problem getting into areas that should be left up to the courts rather than spend taxpayers dollars for frivolous litigation.

    So why was Robert Doe put into prison to begin with? He was given a fair trial or he would’t be there now. Why has he been kept in solitary confinement if he wasn’t a hazard to himself or others? Have you actually gone to the prison and checked out the solitary confinement cells? I had the opportunity to, and I can say that they were not that bad. None of those people would be there if they hadn’t broken the laws of society. Keep the UN out of this also you and your group. The Bahamas have a saying we should use instead of treating the criminals with kid gloves. “You do the crime, you do the time” no time off for good behavior and such. Give them a rock pile and let them make sand. No TV, special sweat tents, no dental care that those of us outside the prison can’t afford, and only basic medical care no special advantages. Keep them alive and that is all.


    February 18, 2010 at 9:46 am

    • Pat, thanks for sharing your opinion. I just wanted to clarify that I do not have anything to do with the ACLU or this case, nor do I represent any “group” (you reference “you and your group”). I just operate this blog to share news about legal developments related to prisons and jails. In this particular case, I do agree with the ACLU’s position that, if the facts the ACLU has alleged in its complaint are true, then Robert Doe has been subjected to horrific treatment that no one regardless of what they “did,” and much less a 17-year-old child with a history of mental illness and severe abuse/neglect, should be subjected to.

      I formed this opinion after reading through all the materials on the case. You ask a few factual questions about the case such as why Robert Doe is in prison and why he is in solitary confinement. If you read the materials on the ACLU website to which I linked, you can find out why he is in prison and how he has been treated there. I would suggest reading the factual allegations before forming an opinion on this case or any other. You can download the ACLU’s initial complaint on behalf of Robert Doe at this link:


      February 18, 2010 at 10:21 am

  2. This ain’t the United States of 8th Amendment. Take heed of this ancient Canadian proverb: “Do the crime for sure, get some fine torture. Eh?”


    February 18, 2010 at 8:32 pm

  3. would you still be advocating torture if you had a loved one in prison? what if ‘robert doe’ were your brother, or even mother, daughter perhaps?


    April 27, 2010 at 10:43 am

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