The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) invites you to mark Human Rights Day weekend this December 7-9 by lifting up the need to shine a light on places where torture might occur in the U.S. Your congregation can use a bulletin insert and worship materials, show a video, or gather signatures for the petition asking the President to sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).
Visit http://www.nrcat.org/torture-abroad/human-rights-day for more details.
"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." –Definition of torture in UN Torture Convention of 1984
I was born in Chile and grew up amidst the heart-wrenching evidence that state-sponsored torture was a societal sin that would forever tarnish Chile’s soul. When details of U.S.-sponsored torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and in secret prisons around the globe surfaced, I, along with much of the world, was horrified. The United States, the nation where my family, among so many others, sought refuge from repression; whose very being symbolizes freedom and respect for human rights, had succumbed to the spiritual chasm that accompanies the acceptance of torture as an instrument of punishment and control.
Yet, sadly, torture, as defined by the UN, occurs daily in the U.S., in places such as prisons, jails, immigrant detention facilities, mental health institutions, and youth detention facilities. We forget that torture violates the basic dignity of the human person, and though people may be imprisoned for crimes, or being held under suspicion of a crime, or confined due to mental illness, they are all children of God.
Imagine a place where prisoners, some of them mentally ill, are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day (sometimes for years, even decades), in cells where the lights shine 24/7 on the excrement covered walls and the insect infested floors. They live with the constant threat of rape, physical punishment and the psychological torture of deliberately startling sounds, blaring music, menacing dogs, and sleep deprivation. This is not the description of a prison in a foreign land, but the conditions in a Supermax prison in the United States. The United Nations has noted that at least 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement in the U.S., mostly in these Supermax prisons.
In addition, some 40,000 people are held in immigration detention centers in the U.S. every day (a total of about 429,000 per year). There are numerous reports of abuse, including sexual abuse and rape, inadequate access to medical care, denial of access to legal assistance, as well as the overuse of solitary confinement in these detention centers.
Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, concluded that after as little as 15 days in solitary confinement, some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible. Such “prolonged” solitary confinement, he says, amounts to torture prohibited by the UN Convention against Torture. Senator John McCain wrote of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam:
“It's an awful thing, solitary…It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Sarah Shourd, a U.S. citizen, spent 14 months in an Iranian prison; most of them in solitary confinement. She described how after just two months in solitary her “mind began to slip”, she experienced hallucinations, she often cried herself into exhaustion and found herself beating the walls of her cell until her knuckles bled.
What can we do?
We need to shine a light on torture….whether it happens in a foreign prison, or within our own borders. U.S. detention facilities are often not monitored, and torture and abuse can occur – often by guards and other employees.
An important step to correct this lack of monitoring is for the President to sign and the Senate to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). OPCAT sets up mechanisms that prevent torture and abuse in any place of confinement.
On December 10th, the world observes Human Rights Day. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) invites you to mark Human Rights Day Weekend this December 7-9 by lifting up the need to shine a light on places where torture might occur in the U.S. Go to http://www.nrcat.org/torture-abroad/human-rights-day to learn how you and your congregation can observe Human Rights Day Weekend, to learn more about OPCAT, and to sign a petition urging the President to sign OPCAT.