Amnesty slams "inhuman" Ariz. prisons

A November 2009 file photo of the maximum security facility at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, Ariz.
AP Photo/Matt York

(CBS News) The human rights group Amnesty International is accusing Arizona of housing some prison inmates at the state's maximum-security facilities under conditions constituting "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law."

The group says in a new report that about two-thirds of the more than 2,900 prisoners at the state's highest security facility - Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC)-Eyman in Florence, Ariz. - are held in isolation units, also known as Special Management Units (SMU). Prisoners there are confined alone in windowless cells from 22 to 24 hours a day, with little access to natural light, while artificial lighting - controlled by guards - is kept on 24 hours a day. Inmates are granted no work, educational or rehabilitation programs, and even exercise alone in small, enclosed yards, having no association with other prisoners.

Amnesty writes that "In the absence of programs or opportunities for prisoners to engage with others, even in small groups, [we are] concerned that custody officials have few effective or objective means of measuring behavior to assess whether an inmate can be transferred out of SMU."

Many prisoners spend years in such conditions, the group says.

Amnesty says that while the state considers maximum security inmates being those who pose a high institutional security risk, the organization says its research suggests some prisoners confined under solitary conditions do not fit the criteria for such treatment, and that inmates suffering from mental illness or disability may have their conditions worsened by the conditions of their confinement.

The group notes that of the 37 suicides that took place in Arizona's adult prisons between October 2005 and April 2011 (on which information was available), 22 took place in high security isolation units, with the SMU unit accounting for a third.

The effects of isolation conditions can also make it more difficult for individuals to reintegrate into society upon their release.

The report examines isolation units at ASPC-Eyman, as well as similar units at the women's prison at Perryville, and the maximum custody unit at Rincon Minors, which houses male youths ages 14-17 who were tried and convicted as adults.

The report is based on information provided by prisoners and prisoner advocates, current and former prison employees, and the ADOC's own written policies and procedures.

The organization said that Arizona denied requests by the group to tour SMU units at ASPC-Eyman, and refused to meet Amnesty delegates. "As a human rights organization which has visited prisons around the world, Amnesty International is concerned that the department was unwilling to allow it to view the facilities first-hand or to discuss its policies and practice."

Last October the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, said solitary confinement is harsh measure which is "contrary to rehabilitation ... and subject to widespread abuse."

Amnesty International says that while it recognizes the segregation of prisoners may be necessary at times to maintain security or enforce discipline, the group says detention conditions must conform to international standards of humane treatment such as Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Amnesty International is asking the department to make changes to its policies, including:

  • reduce the number of prisoners kept in isolation;
  • improve living conditions in the SMU and other isolation units;
  • remove prisoners with serious mental illness from isolation;
  • take measures to reduce suicides in Arizona's prisons; and
  • Ban minors (under 18) from being held in solitary confinement.

Bill Lamoreaux, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, told the Associated Press that neither he nor ADOC Director Charles Ryan could comment on the Amnesty report because it references ongoing litigation.

Last month human rights groups asked the United Nations Committee Against Torture to intervene and stop California state prisons' practice of holding inmates in solitary confinement.

Inmates ask U.N. to monitor Calif. prisons

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.