Analysis and Commentary on Human Rights
A Thousand Years of Solitude

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments on the situation endured by the more than a thousand prisoners who are held in solitary confinement, in tiny cells, in the Security House Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—with about half serving terms of more than ten years, and some serving terms of more than twenty years. Mariner covers the Center for Constitutional Rights’s class action, filed just last week, challenging the SHU’s solitary confinement regime. She also conveys the Draconian punishment the prisoners suffer, deeming it a combination of sensory deprivation and social isolation, with only the most meager chance for exercise, and even phone calls such as those conveying the news of a death in the family allowed only at authorities’ discretion. Visitation, too, is harshly limited, as is mental health care. Mariner supports the CCR’s effort to challenge these and other practices—including the double-celling of prisoners in the tiniest of cells, and the highly questionable “prison gang validation” process that leads to incarceration at the SHU, as opposed to elsewhere in California’s prison system. Chances for parole, meanwhile, are slim to none. And while the UN has suggested abolishing indefinite solitary confinement, California still employs just such confinement at the SHU.

Ending Prison Rape

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner describes America's very slow progress toward ending prison rape. Mariner chronicles developments in this area from the 70s to today. She focuses especially on early empirical studies; a landmark 2001 Human Rights Watch Report; and the subsequent legislation the report helped trigger, The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003. Mariner also notes that only last Thursday, May 17—nearly nine years after PREA’s passage—did the Justice Department finally issue the national standards on prison rape that PREA requires. Mariner describes in detail these important standards and their reach, and deems them to constitute a critical step forward, as Attorney General Holder has said.

The Trial of the Century?

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments on the official beginning of the military commission proceedings against Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and his four co-defendants. As Mariner notes, the United States is seeking the death penalty against all five men, who are accused of a litany of crimes relating to the 9/11 attacks: terrorism, hijacking, murder, conspiracy, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury. Mohammad, as Mariner explains, has taken responsibility for the attacks, and the other four defendants are alleged to have played key organizational or financial roles in the attacks. Mariner argues that for the verdict in these cases to be seen as just, the defendants must be granted basic procedural guarantees and must face an impartial and independent tribunal. However, Mariner argues, neither the procedures that will be used, nor the tribunal itself, fit these requirements. In particular, Mariner emphasizes the key differences between judicial independence and military discipline, when it comes to the administration of justice, and urges that civilian courts, not courts-martial, should be the tribunals adjudicating these cases. She cites the Zacarias Moussaoui civilian trial as a success in showing that the civilian justice system can work well even in terrorism cases, and suggests that these cases, too, should have gone forward in the civilian justice system.

The Indefinite Detention of Citizens and Non-Citizens Under the NDAA

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments on the provisions of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) relating to the detention of citizens and non-citizens. She begins by noting that, last week, the tenth anniversary of the military prison at Guantanamo occurred, and was the subject of comment by the media, but this brief focus on the prison and its prisoners was the exception to the rule. In addition, she points out that the NDAA addresses the very issue that Guantanamo embodies, indefinite detention without charge, and does so in a way that has sparked sharp criticism from conservatives and liberals alike. Mariner focuses here, however, on a less-remarked aspect of the NDAA: Although its provision for indefinite detention for American citizens has been highly controversial, far less attention has been paid to its provision for indefinite detention for non-citizens—of which there are 171 being currently held at Guantanamo; all but five indefinitely (of the five, four were convicted and one faces terrorism and other charges). Mariner calls for more attention to the NDAA’s treatment of non-citizens, reminding readers that indefinite detention for Americans remains theoretical, but indefinite detention for those incarcerated at Guantanamo is very real.

Human Rights Scholars and Human Rights Professionals: Time to Talk?

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner describes a schism between human rights scholars, on one hand, and human rights professionals, on the other. On the good side, Mariner notes, both scholarship and practice in human rights have thrived over the last two decades—and yet, she contends, there is a troubling disconnect between the two. Mariner’s own survey found that human rights professionals see a wide—even, to some, “enormous”—gap between theory and practice, and rarely read academic articles on human rights. The professionals complained, among other points, that the academics were encouraged to come up with counterintuitive theories, when often the intuitive ones were far closer to the mark. In turn, Mariner notes, the academics might rightly charge that the professionals fear that too much analysis of a problem will impede or delay effective action, as in “Hamlet,” when in fact sustained thought about a human rights issue could bear significant fruit. She thus calls on the two groups to engage more deeply with each other’s work, to the benefit of both. Finally, Mariner offers some specific suggestions as to how such engagement could effectively occur.

An Endless War on Terror

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner comments on the aggressive new War on Terror bills currently pending in Congress. With Osama Bin Laden dead and all the living alleged 9/11 perpetrators in custody awaiting trial, Mariner notes that the bills’ timing seems odd. She also contrasts the long-lasting War on Terror with the events of the post-World-War-Two period in American history. If the bills that are pending pass, she explains, they will go significantly beyond prior War on Terror policies, which were already broad to begin with. Mariner describes the bills as dangerous and irresponsible, and points to the irony that Congress can make bipartisan compromises in the fraught area of counterterrorism, but not when it comes to sorely needed economic measures. If the bills pass, Mariner reports, they will essentially make Guantanamo permanent, embrace detention without trial—which had previously been seen as un-American—and make the military the presumptive detaining and prosecuting authority in certain categories of cases. Mariner points out that even the Bush Administration tried and convicted many terrorism suspects in federal court, rather than resorting to military justice. Finally, she expresses hope that President Obama will veto the bills, as he has threatened to do.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
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Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

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Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

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Samuel Estreicher

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Leslie C. Griffin

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Joanna L. Grossman

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Marci A. Hamilton

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Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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Austin Sarat

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Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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