What does it say about the humanitarian condition of US prisons and jails when one of the United States’ closest allies refuses to extradite a person for fear that American prison conditions would drive him to suicide?
This is exactly what happened on Monday when a British court ruled against the United States’ extradition request for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange due to concerns that his health and safety cannot be assured in US custody.
The United States fought vigorously to extradite Assange so that he can stand trial for alleged violations of the US Espionage Act, as well as other alleged cyber crimes.
We were dismayed by Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s apparently sympathetic approach to the United States’ legal arguments, and we’re disappointed that the court did not reject the radical theory that foreign publishers can be prosecuted for publishing US secrets. The job of national security journalists is to publish the government’s secrets. Criminalizing that is a threat to press freedom and democratic accountability, and these charges should be dropped.
Nevertheless, in her ruling Judge Baraitser denied extradition due to the significant risk that Assange would be placed in solitary confinement, which she concluded would likely lead to his death by suicide.
Assange has a long and documented history of mental illness, and psychiatric experts testified that, during his current incarceration in the United Kingdom, periodic visits from his spouse and children, as well as phone calls with his family, are important factors preventing him from attempting suicide or self-harm.
These are things that would almost certainly be denied Assange in US custody.
Prolonged solitary confinement – defined as the practice of confining people for 22 to 24 hours per day without meaningful human contact for a period of more than 15 days – can amount to torture, according to the United Nations.
Solitary confinement is particularly dangerous for individuals suffering from mental illness, as well as children, nursing mothers and pregnant people. The United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules prohibit prolonged solitary confinement, and restrict the use of solitary confinement for these high-risk individuals.
A growing number of countries have implemented the Mandela Rules as part of a global movement against the continued use of this inhumane treatment, but these prohibitions have not been adopted by the US Bureau of Prisons or any American state – with the partial exception of Colorado.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, an estimated 37% of people incarcerated in US state and federal prisons have a diagnosed mental illness, as do an estimated 44% of incarcerated people in local jails. And studies have shown that approximately half of all suicides and incidents of self-harm in American prisons and jails occur among people held in solitary confinement.
In 2011, the ACLU’s National Prison Project launched the Stop Solitary campaign, which advocates for the abolition of prolonged solitary confinement and the nationwide implementation of the Mandela Rules. Prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States each day was estimated to range from 55,000 to 62,500. After a decade of slow but steady progress by advocates to reduce the use of solitary confinement, recent events have made the situation worse.
As of June 2020, the Unlock the Box campaign estimated that as many as 300,000 people were being held in solitary confinement in response to Covid-19 – a nearly 500% increase from pre-pandemic numbers. The increased use of solitary confinement, which is occurring in state and local prisons and jails as well as federal facilities, is being justified as a response to Covid-19, despite overwhelming public health evidence that solitary confinement is a dangerous and counterproductive response to the disease.
Julian Assange is far from the only person at risk of serious injury or death by the conditions which characterize US prisons and jails. The courts ought to be as concerned about the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of people who were held in solitary last year as they are about this man with an international following.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” Nelson Mandela famously stated.
So what does the United States’ continued over-reliance on a practice that is internationally recognized as tantamount to torture say about us?
We certainly can do better.