Last week, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a report in which it took the United States to task on a wide range of issues, from lack of accountability for torture and overuse of immigration detention to criminal justice practices and police accountability. This report came after a month spent reviewing U.S. compliance with a major human rights treaty, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the U.S. ratified in 1994. The last compliance review was in 2006.

Here is the ACLU’s statement on the release of the report.

On criminal justice issues, the report heavily criticized the widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the U.S.; protection of prisoners against violence, including sexual assault; sentences of life-without-parole for juveniles; continued use of the death penalty; and excessive use of force and police brutality.

Solitary Confinement

An estimated 80,000 Americans languish in solitary confinement on any given day – 20,000 more than the entire prisoner population of Germany. Extensive research has shown that prolonged isolation can cause serious mental deterioration and illness. Prisoners in solitary confinement hallucinate, deliberately injure themselves, and lose the ability to relate to other human beings, making integration back into the general prison population or to life on the outside extremely challenging. Solitary confinement has a particularly harmful impact on people suffering from mental illness, women and youth.

Maine is a national leader on reform of the use of solitary confinement. As a result of six years of advocacy by the ACLU of Maine and partnering organizations, and leadership from the Department of Corrections, Maine reduced the size of its “Special Management Unit” by 70 percent.  

Protection of Prisoners Against Violence, Including Sexual Assault

In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (better known as PREA) to better prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse in prisons and jails across the county. However, as of May 15, 2014, over a decade after PREA was passed, only two states (New Jersey and New Hampshire) were certified in full compliance with National PREA standards. Sexual violence including rape remains widespread in prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. Women, children, LGBT prisoners and prisoners with mental illness are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual violence while incarcerated. According to a 2008 -2009 survey, Maine’s rate of reported sexual victimization was 9.9 percent, over double the national average and the highest of surveyed facilities in New England.   

In addition to concerns about high rates of sexual violence in U.S. correctional and detention centers, the UN committee also expressed concern about the shackling of pregnant prisoners – still legal in 19 states including Maine (Maine is the only New England state without a statute restricting the use of shackling on pregnant prisoners). Shackling pregnant prisoners endangers the health and safety of both the mother and the fetus and its use has been widely criticized by the medical community, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association, as well as public officials and corrections experts. In addition to the undeniable risks of shackling pregnant prisoners during labor, delivery and post-partum recovery, there is a growing body of federal law showing that the practice of shackling can violate the Constitution - as in the case of Shawanna Nelson, who was represented by the ACLU National Prison Project.

Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Juveniles

The Supreme Court cases Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012) found that sentencing juveniles to a life sentence without parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Yet according to the UN report, the majority of the 28 states that had statutes allowing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for children on the books have not passed legislation to comply with these rulings. In addition, some courts have ruled that Miller v. Alabama does not apply retroactively, leaving 2,500 juvenile and adults sentenced as juveniles to languish in prison despite the change is sentencing. The United States remains the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. Here is more information about the ACLU work to end life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Death Penalty

The United States continues to remain an outlier in the developed world due to its continued use of capital punishment, which inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and is dedicated to working to abolish it. In addition to being cruel and unusual, the death penalty is unfairly applied, disproportionately affecting people of color, poor people and people living in certain geographical locations.

Recently, there has been increased public scrutiny of the practice in the wake of three botched executions through lethal injection, by far the predominant method of execution in the United States. Due to growing shortages of the drugs used in executions, U.S. states are utilizing untested drug combinations that amount to what Ryan Kiesal, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, called a “human science experiment.” 

Read more about the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project and listen to this Civil Liberties Minute podcast to learn about Ohio’s House Bill 663, legislation being rushed through the Ohio Legislature to try to keep its execution process secret.

Excessive Use of Force and Police Brutality

The UN Committee expressed serious concern about "numerous reports of police brutality and use of excessive force by law enforcement, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrant, LGBTI individuals, racial profiling by police and immigration offices and growing militarization of policing activities." 

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have fueled a national debate about the role of police in our communities, militarization of the police, and law enforcement's relationship with the community they police, particularly in communities of color. Here is the ACLU’s full statement on the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

The tragic events in Ferguson are not unique, but rather are indicative of an alarming national trend of targeting of communities of color by law enforcement. A recent report by USA Today showed staggering disparities in arrest rates in states across the country including Maine. All the Maine police departments included in the analysis showed significant race gaps in arrests: in South Portland, black people are 3.5 times as likely as non-black people to be arrested; in Bangor, 3.2 times; in Lewiston 2.8 times; and in Portland 2.6 times. Here is our response to the report.

When it comes to criminal justice, the United States stands alone. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its prisoners. We have one of the most punitive penal systems in the world, widely condemned by other developed nations and the international community, which regularly subjects our prisoners (including our youth) to inhumane and torturous treatment. As a nation purporting to value human rights, it is clear we have a lot of work left to do.