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Solitary Confinement is Torture and Must Stop Now

Across the United States and the world, there is an emerging movement calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Across the United States and the world, there is an emerging movement calling for the end of solitary confinement. The Illinois Coalition Against Torture (ICAT) is part of that movement. ICAT is currently engaged in the initial steps of a campaign to bring solitary confinement to an end in the state of Illinois. An ambitious goal but one that can be achieved. All that is needed is a groundswell of ordinary people raising their voices and declaring that solitary confinement IS torture! It is TORTURE and it must stop and now. Join us. Sign our petition. Spread the word.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot about torture over the last ten years.

In early 2004 shocking news was released about the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq. It seemed incredible that in this modern age, members of the military of our civilized nation could have engaged in such atrocities. This was despicable.

Then in that same year, a burst of publicity revealed that there were over 110, maybe more, African American men and women who were tortured by Chicago police officers into making confessions between 1972 and 1991. This happened under the watch of John Burge, then serving as commander in Area 2. I read details of the inhumane treatment and lack of investigative action by Richard M. Daley, then States Attorney.

By 2005 Amnesty International was reporting the torture of those incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba where alleged terrorists were being held in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2006, the United Nations called unsuccessfully for that prison to be closed. In January 2009, Susan J. Crawford, Convening Authority for the Guantanamo military commissions, became the first Bush administration official to concede that torture occurred at Guantanamo Bay.

My city, my nation were and are engaging in torture and I became involved. My religious community, Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, voted to take a corporate stand against torture in 2010, and I joined the newly formed Illinois Coalition Against Torture.

My learning has continued at a quickened pace. Most significant perhaps was that, despite the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994, somehow our national leaders assume they are not bound.

That UN Convention defined torture as an act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical, is intentionally inflicted on a person…by or at the instigation of or with acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” I came to understand the implications of this definition. Solitary confinement, which clearly and knowingly inflicts of mental and psychological pain, IS torture.

Juan E. Méndez, the independent United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said the U.S. government should abolish the use of prolonged solitary confinement under all circumstances. His remarks included this warning: “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”

I have learned that in the United States, more prisoners are held in solitary confinement than in any other country in the world. Though statistics are hard to come by, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture claims that “Experts estimate that at least 80,000 people in the U.S. criminal justice system are held in solitary confinement.” In Illinois, more than 350 prisoners have been confined to solitary for more than a year.

From my own experience, I have learned a little about what those in solitary confinement endure. My office is 7½ by 10½, with a big window for air and light; solitary confinement cells generally are 7 by 10, with no chance of fresh air or sunlight. I work 8 hours in that small space, have three meals in the dining room, and come and go as I wish; generally detainees are confined to their space 23 hours a day, meals come in through a slot, and they are only out for short exercise and an occasional shower. My brain becomes fatigued when I am at my desk over long periods of time, over several hours; prisoners’ brains become physically changed when they are held isolation over long periods of time, over several months or years.

I urge you to learn what you can about torture, solitary confinement, and the damage to human beings if we simply remain silent. All that is needed is a groundswell of ordinary people. Will you join us? Please sign our petition and find out more about us. Solitary confinement is torture and must end now!

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