Skip to main content

California needs a committee for the prevention of torture

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | June 8, 2011

It was the pictures that did it. When the Supreme Court was compelled to look at pictures of the refugee camp like chaos and overcrowding in California’s supposedly secure prisons, and the “dry cells”, i.e., vertical cages in which mentally ill and suicidal prisoners are locked up for weeks and months because no treatment beds are available, they were clearly disturbed and five of them voted to uphold jot for jot, the 3-Judge court’s order that California reduce its prison population (read Brown v. Plata here) and to make it clear, appended the photos themselves to their opinion.

Californians need to look at those pictures and ask whether that is how they want their state to be represented to the world. Make no mistake, writing from Europe I can assure you that the rest of the world sees no moral light between California and the practice of degradation and inhuman treatment at Abu Ghraib and Guatanamo, indeed California is worst because it has been subjecting tens of thousands to these degrading conditions for decades. Californian’s need to look at these pictures and ask, who is responsible for hiding these truths from us, and how can we make sure it never happens again.

As for the hiding of the truth, blame belongs with the alliance of politicians, the correctional officers union, and the professional “victims for vengeance” lobby which for decades have conspired to hysterically raise the threat that hordes of Charles Manson like fiends will pour forth from our prisons if we ever modify our rigid and punitive sentencing laws (read Josh Page’s excellent column in the LA Times on this alliance, and his excellent book on the how that alliance created California’s version of mass incarceration).

As for preventing this from happening again, we need to create an institution capable of making sure that truth is never hidden again, and of countering the strategic of use of fear and intimidation by the prison alliance. What we know thus far, is that our normal political institutions, including the legislature, the office of governor, the California Supreme Court, the political parties and the media have failed us completely in preventing this horrific situation from ever forming. The Council of Europe, whose members include virtually ever state in Europe (its far bigger than the European Union) has an organ designed precisely to protect the human rights of Europeans against the real risk of abuse behind the closed doors of prisons, asylums, and detention centers. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CPT) was created in 1989 under the Council of Europe’s “European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (read more about the CPT here). Consisting of independent legal, medical, and academic experts from every member state, the CPT is empowered to visit any place of confinement in any member state with no advance warning. They issue reports to the member state itself providing detailed study of any conditions that risk producing torture, or degrading or inhuman treatment. These reports are generally made public by the member states and taken quite seriously as a starting point for reforms. If they are not, the CPT can issue a public rebuke designed to the call the attention of all member states and their citizens to the real risk that exists of human rights being trampled.

California does have an Office of the Inspector General (visit its website) tasked with guarding the integrity of the Department of Corrections, but despite being led by people of good will and intention, the Office has neither the power nor the independence to protect the human rights of incarcerated Californians. As Harry Shearer points out regularly on Le Show, the whole idea of an inspector general is problematic since they are neither generals (they have no troops) nor inspectors (they have no spooks). Even in its weak form, the Office has regularly been attacked by the prison alliance and could easily be eliminated altogether by a future governor or legislature.

Governor Brown should acknowledge that given the gross politicization of prison policies in the decades between his terms in office, neither he nor any other politician can guarantee that Californians will learn the truth about what is being done in their name. Governor Brown should present the legislature with a bill to amend the California Constitution to forbid not only cruel unusual punishment, but “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and to create a “California Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”Governor Brown should acknowledge that given the gross politicization of prison policies in the decades between his terms in office, neither he nor any other politician can guarantee that Californians will learn the truth about what is being done in their name. This Cal CPT should be led by independent legal, medical, and academic experts with both human rights and penal institutions expertise. They should have the mandate and the power to visit any prison, jail, mental hospital, or detention facility in the state at the time of their choosing, and to produce a public report to the governor and the legislature, detailing any evidence that conditions in those facilities are at risk of producing torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

Comments to “California needs a committee for the prevention of torture

  1. As always, Jonathan, I thank you for putting so eloquently what we all should feel….Everyone should read Governing Through Crime, and perhaps they should add Dayan’s The Law Is A White Dog, if they want to understand what has gone on in my life time. These also argue in excruciating detail what the bases for our collective shame are….We owe you and others a huge debt.

  2. All I can say is ~~wonderful article~~, wish something could be done like that…it would be a great thing,but as you know has long has the prison union controls Calif those in charge will do nothing, money talks and pay offs are big…from what I have read, start at the problem the union.I can only pray that someone out there with the ~COURAGE~ to go against what is happening will stand up
    Thank you…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *