Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues

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The Walls Are Closing In! Torture in Global Prison Systems

Bryana Spann

On March 1, 2017, Spike TV premiered the first episode of “Life: The Kalief Browder Story”, a six-part docu-series about the life, incarceration and death of Kalief Browder. In 2010, Browder was arrested at the age of sixteen for allegedly stealing a backpack and then held in pretrial detention at Riker’s Island for over 1,000 days, with more than 700 days in solitary confinement.[1] For many, his questionable detention is reminiscent of the “The Angola 3”, three men who were held in solitary confinement for a combined total of more than 100 years for the killing of a prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary.[2] Even in 2013, a South Carolina inmate was sentenced to 13,680 days (37.5 years) in disciplinary detention for posting on Facebook 38 times.[3] Once again, we must bring to our attention what seems to be an unrestrained administration of solitary confinement in the United States and the rest of the world.


Solitary confinement is defined as the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day.[4] Although a popular tool of punishment, it has several negative psychological effects. In an interim report, the Special Rapporteur of the on Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Juan E .Méndez drew attention to the widespread use and disadvantages of solitary confinement.[5] Symptoms include anxiety, depression, paranoia, and self-harm for those who had no history of mental illness. [6] In fact, suicides occur disproportionately more often in segregated units than elsewhere in prison.[7] For those who entered with mental illness, there can be an exacerbation of those symptoms. [8] Even post isolation, these symptoms can continue and affect social interactions because of lack of mental health services.[9] The lack of sustained social interaction can cause impairment in the human brain similar to a traumatic injury.[10] In December 2007, several experts and in psychology and law convened at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium to issue the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement.[11] The joint statement also noted that the psychological pressure when used on purpose of isolation regimes can become coercive and can amount to torture, especially when the pressure pre-trial detainees to plead guilty. [12] Effort is required to raise the level of meaningful social contacts for prisoners, via psychologists, psychiatrists, religious prison personnel, or even family and friends, to decrease the harmful effects of solitary confinement.[13] The joint statement, along with many other rights advocacy groups, has encouraged the prohibition of solitary confinement for children under the age of 18, mentally ill prisoners, and death row or life-sentenced prisoners by virtue of their sentence.[14]

Torture has long been acknowledged as a jus cogens norm in international law, meaning that a State cannot derogate from the prohibition. In the context of international organs, prolonged solitary confinement (longer than 15 days) can amount to acts prohibited by article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and torture as defined in article 1 if the Convention against Torture due to the severe adverse health effects and the possible irreversible psychological effects.[15] The Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture has pointed out that solitary confinement should not be used in the case of minors or the mentally disabled.[16] The Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Prevention of Torture have both urged states to abolish the use of solitary confinement, or at least use it only in exceptional circumstances under strict regulation.[17]


Although the Convention on Torture has been widely ratified with 160+ state parties, including the United States, extended solitary confinement has been one that many countries seem to make excuses for. The primary justifications for solitary confinement usually fall under five general categories: to punish an individual; to protect vulnerable individuals; to facilitate prison management of certain individuals; to protect or promote national security; or to facilitate pre-charge or pre-trial investigations.[18]


These justifications seem to seep into the perception of the public, especially those who are opposed to the death penalty. Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the World Trade Center bombing, was sentenced to 240 years plus life in solitary confinement in 1998.[19] Anders Bering Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in Norway, has been kept in solitary confinement since his 21 year sentence was handed down in 2012. This is notable, since Norway has signed and ratified the ICCPR, the Convention on Torture, and the European Convention on Human Rights, including Protocols 1 – 15.[20] Most people would not deny the danger these persons pose to the public but the conversation becomes murkier when the conversation of solitary confinement turns to immigrants or prisoners of war. With over an estimated 80,000 U.S. prisoners being kept in isolation,[21] there has to be a shift in dialogue to a more humane form of punishment that does not break the psyche. As of now, the imposition of solitary confinement is at the discretion of prison administrators[22], whose main concern is to maintain prison order. However, criminal recidivism has been occurring at a higher rate for those in solitary confinement,[23] which in general poses a greater risk to the public. It may be time to look at alternative methods of punishment or make it more of a policy issue that involves the legislature so that stories, such as the Kalief Browder story, stop themselves from replicating.

[1] https://www.yahoo.com/news/time-kalief-browder-story-review-185022084.html

[2] http://www.npr.org/2016/03/19/470828257/after-decades-in-solitary-last-of-the-angola-3-carry-on-their-struggle

[3] https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/02/hundreds-south-carolina-inmates-sent-solitary-confinement-over-facebook

[4] http://solitaryconfinement.org/istanbul

[5] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/GA66session.aspx

[6] Id.

[7] http://jaapl.org/content/38/1/104

[8] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/GA66session.aspx

[9] Id.

[10] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/30/hellhole

[11] http://solitaryconfinement.org/istanbul

[12][12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. See also, http://www.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/WopiFrame.aspx?sourcedoc=/Documents/Issues/Disability/A.63.175.doc&action=default&DefaultItemOpen=1; http://www.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/WopiFrame.aspx?sourcedoc=/Documents/Publications/Slides/SlidesChapter8.pptx&action=default&DefaultItemOpen=1.

[15] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx


[17] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/GA66session.aspx

[18] Id.

[19] http://www.cnn.com/US/9801/09/solitary.confinement/index.html

[20] http://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/search-on-treaties/-/conventions/chartSignature/3; http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=129&Lang=EN

[21] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35813348

[22] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/30/hellhole

[23] http://solitarywatch.com/facts/faq/

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I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Ali Rickart

TRIAL, short for Track Impunity Always, does just that. The Swiss organization was founded in 2002 as a way to track and watch international persons that have allegedly committed crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, and more. The association has consultative status before the United Nations Economic and Social Council and is an apolitical organization. After being inspired by the capture of Pinochet in 1998 and the subsequent establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, the goals of TRIAL are to “put the law at the service of the victims of international crime.”[1] TRIAL wants to fight impunity, defend the victims of international crimes, and raise awareness of the crimes and perpetrators to show the need for coherent and effective national and international justice systems.


There are several areas in which TRIAL works: litigation, lobbying, informing the public, and research. Through these different areas, TRIAL works with people around the globe to successfully meet its goals. The litigation process has three different methods for pursuing international criminals and helping victims. First, the Advocacy Center TRIAL (ACT) works on filing complaints before international human rights bodies, to help victims of crime achieve justice. The second method is to distribute information to victims of armed conflicts and what legal methods they have to promote their right to justice. Third, TRIAL will actually file complaints in Swiss courts “against individuals present on Swiss territory suspected of international crimes.”[2]

TRIAL regularly lobbies with Swiss and international authorities, as well as working with the Swiss Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CSCPI). The research includes ICC Legal Tools, a digital library, which gathers, analyzes, and classifies documents of the 46 countries on national legislation and practice in relation to crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC.  In collaboration with Pro Juventute, TRIAL is working on a video game project, showing the connection between video/computer games and international humanitarian law. The idea was created by TRIAL, but the study received an encouragement award at the 2007 International Human Rights Forum in Lucerne. Recently, TRIAL received the “Geneva grateful” medal (médaille “Genève reconnaissante”) on behalf of the Mayor of Geneva. If you can speak French, the link to the article is posted here.

TRIAL is also a partner organization of the Center for International and Comparative Law (CICL), allowing CICL Student Fellows at the University of Baltimore School of Law to work on profiles as a part of the TRIAL Watch Project.

The TRIAL Watch Project – Informing the Public of International Criminal Law Perpetrators

Informing the public is one of TRIAL’s biggest goals and biggest projects, which is done through TRIAL Watch. Its website is a database compiled of profiles of perpetrators and instigators of international crimes. They also distribute a trilingual TRIAL Journal, printed three times a year. Each day, a summary of news in international criminal law and the fight against impunity in the world is placed on the website and sent to subscribers once a week. As a way to become more known, TRIAL Watch organizes public discussions, lectures, and film screenings as well as  ‘actions’ on important days of the year such as International Justice Day (July 17) and International Day of the Missing (August 30).


The profiles that are shown on the website of TRIAL Watch are drafted by volunteers and in up to four languages – English, French, Spanish, and German.[3] The profiles include pertinent information such as the criminal’s name, aliases, status (indicted, sentenced, acquitted, etc.), position, as well as what they have allegedly done. Below each brief set of facts and information is a detailed profile including specifics as to the crime and the person, including the facts, the legal procedure, and the context in which the crime occurred (such as the Sierra Leone civil war or Bangladeshi Liberation War, for example).

The profiles also try to include photographs of the alleged criminal and their last known whereabouts. If possible, links to relevant documents are also included such as case documents, United Nations Security Council resolutions, books, judgments, and other related documents. This can help further research by anyone who wants more information on the person, the crime, or the case. It is also possible to be subscribed to a particular profile, in order to be informed if any updates are made on the profile. TRIAL Watch regularly updates all profiles if any new events, charges, indictments, sentencing, etc., occurs to an alleged criminal.

As a Fellow of the CICL and assigned to the TRIAL Watch team, I draft articles of alleged international criminals such as Sladjan Cukaric and Miodrag Josipovic. I have also drafted an update for Maulana Abdus Subhan, as part of the initiative to keep all profiles as current as possible, to help those tracking criminals and their progress through their respective judicial systems, stay up to date on information. It can be hard work, there is not always a lot of available information on people or what little information there is often comes from foreign sources that must be translated and checked for accuracy. The impact TRIAL Watch has on citizens of nations all around the world is worth every second of the work.

If you are interested in international criminal law or international humanitarian law, you can become a volunteer, donate, and become a TRIAL Watch member. You can also join the CICL Fellows program and work on the TRIAL Watch team! It’s absolutely possible to work on international law right here in Baltimore!

Alexandra Rickart is a second-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, planning to graduate in May 2016 with a concentration in International Law. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2013 with a B.A. in Communication and a minor in Business. Her primary interests include international law, international criminal law, and domestic criminal law.

In addition to being a CICL Fellows, she is the Secretary of the International Law Society and a Staff Editor for the University of Baltimore Journal of International Law. She competed in the 2014-15 Jessup International Moot Court Competition, Mid-Atlantic Region. During her first year of law school, she was a tutor for Baltimore elementary students as part of the Truancy Court program through the Center for Families, Children and the Courts. Alexandra is currently a law clerk for a criminal defense firm in Baltimore.

[1] Introduction, TRIAL, http://www.trial-ch.org/en/about-trial.html.

[2] Introduction, TRIAL, http://www.trial-ch.org/en/about-trial.html.

[3] The website itself, as a whole, can be translated into one of these four languages by a convenient button on the top right hand of the screen.