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California, the land of the gulag

April 13, 2012

by Boris Volkhonsky

Voice of Russia used this photo to illustrate this story. – Photo: ©Магадан/cc-by-nc-sa 3.0
The Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law has placed on its website the text of a petition filed to the United Nations by a number of human rights organizations on behalf of hundreds of prisoners kept in solitary confinement in California prisons and subject to treatment amounting to torture and violating international human rights norms.

“California holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other state in the United States or any other nation on earth. The treatment of these prisoners is barbaric and numerous experts agree amounts to torture. It destroys their mental and physical health and destroys them spiritually. They live like prisoners held in a Gulag, not a modern democracy.

They are locked in solitary segregation merely because they may have associated with a gang and remain in isolation until shown to be “gang free” for “six years.” These prisoners engaged in a widely publicized hunger strike during the summer of 2011, and are now suffering retaliation (more time in solitary segregation) because they had the courage to protest their treatment by refusing to eat,” reads the statement on the center’s website.

The site also quotes 22 most notable instances of prisoners describing the horrors of living in Security Housing Units (SHU). The time of solitary confinement ranges from two to more than 30 years.

The authors of the petition ask the United Nations to intervene by conducting an on-site investigation and permitting Red Cross visits.

Now, some commentators point out that the best way to avoid inhumane treatment in a prison is not to commit any crime at all and that the human rights activists are more concerned about the rights of criminals than their victims. It may be true, but only partially.

In fact, the unanswered question is, how many among the hundreds and thousands of prisoners subject to solitary confinement and other forms of inhumane treatment are there for no reason at all? And even if they had committed the crimes they were sentenced for, is the degree of the crime committed comparable with the treatment they receive?

Even if they had committed the crimes they were sentenced for, is the degree of the crime committed comparable with the treatment they receive?

In recent years, the world has grown accustomed to the treatment of detainees by the U.S. “lawlessness and disorder.” Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons are the notorious examples which hardly need any further explanation.

But the detainees there – most of whom were kept in inhumane conditions without any trial, when the principle of presumption of innocence was totally neglected – for most part, were not American citizens. The California story tells us of the U.S. treatment of its own subjects.

The detainees in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib for most part were not American citizens. The California story tells us of the U.S. treatment of its own subjects.

But, again, this should not be too surprising. The recent directive by the U.S. attorney general gives clear evidence that the U.S. can go further in its attempts to wipe away the “bad guys” – be they U.S. citizens or not. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney-General Eric H. Holder Jr. stated that it is lawful for the government to kill American citizens if officials suspect them of planning attacks on the United States. This directive regards suspects only – not even indicted.

If a mere suspicion allows the U.S. authorities to kill American citizens without trial, what can be said about people tried and convicted – many of them for serious crimes? In the authorities’ view, they simply deserve whatever kind of treatment may be conceived.

In recent months, observers have extensively commented on the U.S. turning into a police state, citing numerous cases of human rights abuses, police surveillance etc. From the California story, it looks like the definition “police state” is too mild. Police abuses seem to be a child’s game as compared to what is going on in California prisons.

Maybe “gulag state” would be a better definition? Or, would you vote for “torture state”?

Boris Volkhonsky is senior research fellow with the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. The Voice of Russia, where this story first appeared, was the first radio station to broadcast internationally; it has been on the air since Oct. 29, 1929. VOR has 109 million listeners in 160 countries.


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