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From Prison Walls to the United Nations

Collage by Ojore Lutalo
Photo: Collage by Ojore Lutalo / AFSC

Note: Recently Lia Lindsey, Policy Impact Coordinator for AFSC, traveled to Geneva with a delegation to testify to the UN Committee against Torture about solitary confinement in the United States. She joined many others, including Mike Brown's parents, to bring the voices of those most impacted to the halls of the United Nations to consider actions to disrupt injustice, including solitary confinement, in the United States. - Lucy

“All of these people are going to talk?  How are they going to do that?” says an incredulous UN staff member as we walk into a room at the Palais Wilson, headquarters of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  The answer was yes, and all 70+ of us had been preparing for this moment for many weeks. 

Our civil society delegation traveled to Geneva from communities across the United States to implore the Committee against Torture to help us hold our government accountable for torture committed under its watch.  And there we were, testimonies and advocacy materials in hand, funneling into the room where the Committee was waiting to hear from us.  The contributions of civil society organizations like AFSC are an essential part of compliance reviews like this one.  We provide an alternative perspective from U.S. delegation rhetoric on how the government has failed to uphold its commitments under the Convention against Torture.  Rooted in Quaker tradition, AFSC lifted up testimonies of prison torture survivors who because of their imprisonment were prevented from sharing their stories with the Committee in person.   

US Human Rights delegation, photo courtesy Human Rights NetworkAFSC’s interest in human rights issues in prisons stems from Quaker activism in prison reform, sparked in the 17th and 18th centuries when Friends were imprisoned for their beliefs and actions.  Quakers were also early proponents for thinking that prisoners could be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, this led to the creation of solitary confinment. Quakers thought that solitude and reflection could lead to repentance. Having created the practice of solitary confinement and understanding the practice as torture, now Quakers and AFSC actively work for its abolition.

For over three decades AFSC has been a leading voice calling for the United States government to end physical, chemical, and psychological ill treatment against adults, juveniles, immigrants, and international prisoners in confinement. AFSC takes a critical eye to prison policy while moving the public discourse of imprisonment and unconscionable conditions of confinement into a human rights framework. 

CAT Hearing, photo courtesy US Mission in GenevaUpon learning of the 2014 U.S. Convention against Torture review, staff member Bonnie Kerness conceived ”that we would have direct words from those experiencing torture” to update the Torture in US Prisons resource she edited in 2011.  While she partnered with Prison Legal News and AFSC student interns to solicit and categorize prisoner abuse testimonies, staffer Lia Lindsey joined the U.S. Human Rights Network Convention against Torture Taskforce to assist robust civil society engagement in the review.  When it came time to write a shadow report for the Committee, we agreed that what the Committee most needed to hear and what AFSC was uniquely positioned to facilitate, was the voices of these prisoners who lived through cruel acts.  Thus Survivors Speak: Prisoner Testimonies of Torture in United States Prisons and Jails was born.  AFSC was in the minority of organizations submitting a report comprised of direct, verbatim accounts of abuse.  During a consultation with the U.S. government in Geneva Lia read a quote from W.T., a prisoner in New Jersey, to help delegation members understand the humanity of those abused,

 “I have to bed for water and food.  We are being killed slowly. If you were here you would find us in this “dry cell” naked, cold and hungry….Please can you get somebody, anybody, to get us out of these torture chambers?  We are doing nothing wrong and have no intention of doing so.”

Ojore collagePrison Watch staff member and artist Ojore Lutalo can identify with what W.T. endured.  During 22 years in Management Control Unit isolation because of his political views, he documented treatment he endured through letters and collage.  In one of his early letters to AFSC in the 1980s, Ojore wrote,

“How does one go about articulating desperation to another who is not desperate?  How does one go about articulating the psychological stress of knowing that people are waiting for me to self-destruct?”

Thankfully Ojore’s personal strength, meditation practice and artallowed him to survive prolonged isolation.  Today, he shares his story, artwork, and vision for a world free from solitary confinement with audiences across the New England region.

Back in the Palais Wilson, the Committee listened intently as we told them about violations of the Convention and speakers directly impacted by acts of torture described how that abuse has impacted their lives.  During the formal review session we learned that our concerns about the psychological effects of isolation hadn’t fallen on deaf ears when one Committee member noted for the U.S. delegation, “a person kept in the same cell for at least 22 hours a day in the long run becomes insane…over 30 days and you’re directing them towards insanity.”  

CAT Meeting in Geneva, US Mission in GenevaOn November 28th the Committee against Torture released their concluding observations for the United States government outlining areas of improvement when it comes to honoring commitments under the Convention, where practices fall short of compliance and policy recommendations for greater adherence to U.S. international obligations.  There were many aspects of the report to applaud and we are particularly pleased that the Committee continues to call on the United States to end the cruel practice of solitary confinement. 

The panel reiterated its ongoing concerns about “extensive use” of solitary confinement as punishment, for safety purposes, and discipline.  In their expert opinions, “the full isolation for 22-23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable” under Article 16’s ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  The Committee called on the U.S. to address its lack of transparency surrounding its use by collecting and publishing disaggregated data about when and how it is employed. 

Lia in Geneva The rights of prisoners were also featured in the report, as a reaction to widespread violence and abuses in confinement.   The Committee noted with concern that many prisoners are subjected to sexual abuse and expressed their disappointment that the Prison Rape Elimination has not been implemented in all states (and in fact, several states have refused to comply with the Act).  Sexual abuse is one category of abuses featured in AFSC’s “Survivors Speak” report, both in testimonies presented and in our policy recommendation that the Act be immediately implemented in all confinement facilities nationwide.  The Committee also joined AFSC in calling for the establishment of independent monitoring mechanisms to address prisoner complaints of violence and abuse. 

The release of this report is not the end but another chapter in the struggle for State accountability for grave violations of the Convention against Torture.  To learn more about AFSC’s work on imprisonment and how you can help raise up the voices of survivors of cruel treatment in prisons, please visit http://afsc.org/key-issues/issue/addressing-prisons.   

About the Author

Bonnie Kerness became an anti-racist activist when she was 14 years old, volunteering at New York’s University Settlement House. She participated in the Civil Rights Movement, trained in Tennessee by the NAACP and Highlander Center as a community organizer. Moving North in 1970, she became active with welfare, tenants rights and anti-war issues.