Human rights activists rallied in downtown L.A. on Tuesday to call for intervention by the United Nations to stop the torture of prisoners by an amoral regime. But they weren't talking about Syria, Cuba or some African dictatorship; the rogue state in question is the state of California.
The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, along with a handful of prison-advocacy groups, submitted a petition to the U.N. requesting an on-site investigation of conditions in California's Security Housing Units, the segregated cells where prisoners suspected of gang involvement are placed. The groups claim these units violate international statutes barring the torture of prisoners because inmates are held in solitary confinement for years for a "crime" (gang membership) for which they were never tried or convicted.
The petition is, of course, a stunt; as badly as California has mismanaged its prisons, there are state and federal avenues for addressing such problems. But that doesn't mean the activists' concerns should be dismissed. There is reason to suspect that in the name of fighting gang violence, corrections officials have exposed some prisoners to conditions that are extraordinarily harsh, unfair and possibly unconstitutional.
In July, prisoners began a series of hunger strikes to protest policies in the Security Housing Units, which often consist of tiny 8-foot-square cells in which inmates are confined, in isolation, for 22 1/2 hours a day, allowed out only for a short stretch in a tiny concrete-walled yard. Anyone suspected of gang membership can be placed in these units, and the only way to get out is to denounce the gang by "snitching" on other members — a highly dangerous act in prison — or to spend at least six years inside. Some prisoners have been in solitary for decades.