Yesterday, the Center for Constitutional Rights, The Council on American Islamic Relations-New York, and Amnesty International released an open letter expressing serious concern over the upcoming trial of Syed Fahad Hashmi. The letter urges the Attorney General, Eric Holder to both review and revise Department of Justice regulations which govern the implementation of Special Administrative Measures. SAMs can be imposed on inmates past 120 days when the Department of Justice deems it reasonably necessary “because there is a substantial risk that an inmates communication or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons or substantial property would entail the risk of death or serious bodily injury to persons.” The open letter expresses concern over whether Fahad has even been informed of the reasons for the imposition of the SAMs.
While I understand that the Department of Justice has a duty protect both people and classified information, I fail to understand why this results in conditions of confinement that are cruel, inhuman and yes…by international standards rise to the level of torture. For three years before he has even faced trial, Fahad has been in a solitary cell, in downtown Manhattan, unable to speak to other prisoners. He is taken to exercise in a small cage inside the prison for one hour a day and is not permitted access to any natural air or sunlight. He has only been allowed outside contact with his immediate family on a limited basis and his attorneys. He is under constant surveillence when he uses the toilet, showers or meets family or his attorneys. He is forbidden from listening any televised or radio news and cannot have access to newspaper more current than thirty days which are censored by the government.
Where is that familiar phase we all heard in fourth grade social studies class, “innocent until proven guilty”?
I was happy to read that these three organizations came together to write a letter regarding this issue. However, I can’t help but be incredibly disappointed with the silence of the other human rights and civil liberties organizations on this issue. Prolonged isolation in solitary confinement for both the accused and the guilty implicate serious human rights issues.
On April 8th, Bill Quigley, Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote a piece in The Huffington Post about the conditions of Fahad’s treatment entitled, “Not Just Guantanamo: U.S Torturing Muslim Pre-Trial Detainees in NYC.” He asked:
If the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, what is the impact of forced isolation? Medical testimony presented in his case in federal court concluded that after 60 days in solitary people’s mental state begins to break down. That means a person will start to experience panic, anxiety, confusion, headaches, heart palpitations, sleep problems, withdrawal, anger, depression, despair, and over-sensitivity. Over time this can lead to severe psychiatric trauma and harms like psychosis, distortion of reality, hallucinations, mass anxiety and acute confusion. Essentially, the mind disintegrates.
There is a great deal of medical and psychological reports circulating which describe the effects of solitary confinement on the body. But perhaps even more disturbing is to read personal accounts of prisoners both at home and abroad who have suffered through prolonged isolation. One can’t easily forget the stories because they describe a frightening process which is designed to break the spirit in a slow, painful manner. Fahad’s family and attorneys have expressed concern with the deterioration of his mental state since he has been incarcerated. One cannot imagine what it must be like for Fahad’s family to watch this process for three long years.
Last year, Atul Gawande wrote about the effects of long term solitary confinement in the 2009 New Yorker piece, “Hellhole.” The article noted that there have been several studies which look at the effect of solitary confinement on the brain. EEG reports going back to the 1960s discuss a slowing of brain patterns in prisoners after a week. Studies show that without social interaction which is sustained, the human brain can be impaired as that which his incurred a traumatic injury.
It is not a secret that prolonged solitary confinement is a violation of international human rights law, so I don’t understand the silence on the part of some human rights organizations. Extended solitary confinement has been raised as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Convention against Torture, and the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Additionally the Human Rights Committee and the U.N Committee on Torture have specifically condemned the practice of long term isolation in U.S prisons.
I urge readers to pay close attention to the upcoming trial of Fahad in the context of larger discussions regarding conditions at Guantanamo Bay. Closing Guantanamo does not mean we allow the same or similar conditions to quietly proceed in our own cities. This is why I believe it is so important for organizations to speak up about Fahad’s case. Organizations may not be able to agree on whether prolonged solitary confinements raises to the level of “torture” or to “cruel and unusual punishment,” but we can at least agree that conditions of confinement which include prolonged solitary confinement implicates rights for which we all should be concerned.
In addition to the open letter from CCR, Amnesty NY and the Council on American Islamic Relations-New York, hundreds of people have sent postcards to Attorney General Holder asking for clarification on SAMs and their application in Fahad’s case. I believe it is time for other organizations that have consistently advocated against similar rights abuses to do the same.
In the words of Charles Dickens after visiting Cherry Hill Prison in 1892:
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment [solitary confinmenet], prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers . . . there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body . . . .”
by Kathy Heffron