As if we didn’t have enough layers of government investigation in the U.S., a United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture says he wants to have a look at California’s prisons to determine whether their practice of solitary confinement violates standards of international law. Juan Mendez, in his day job a professor of law at American University, says overcrowding and solitary confinement in U.S. prisons today may constitute cruel and unusual punishment or even torture under international legal standards.
But wait just a minute. How could a United Nations official have any say in what is done in California’s prisons? How can international law inject itself into domestic operations of the United States? And how could U.N. or other international standards of torture override U.S. policies about the treatment of prisoners? These are all important questions since human rights organizations would love to use international law as a lever to do away with capital punishment and change prison policies in the U.S. in ways they have been unable to accomplish through federal and state laws.