Not three months have passed since the United States loudly trumpeted its resounding support for the adoption of the new United Nations’ “Mandela Rules” for the treatment of prisoners, and already, we’re treating it as though it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
This week whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth, was sentenced to 21 days of restrictions in the maximum security facility. Listed amongst her offences were disrespect and disorderly conduct (when she requested to see her lawyer after a cafeteria incident), as well as “medicine misuse” (for having expired toothpaste), and possession of copies of I am Malala, Out Magazine, the Caitlyn Jenner issue of Vanity Fair, and other titles.
For these offences, Manning faced the possibility of indefinite solitary confinement. To those have followed the development of the Mandela Rules and the US’ involvement in its creation, you will remember that the document clearly sets out that solitary confinement is never to last beyond 14 days, but that it is also only to be used as a last resort—how a toothpaste offence constitutes anything meriting such measures is beyond me.
Manning was spared isolation, but the mere fact that she was threatened with indefinite confinement speaks volumes as to the level of commitment American prisoners have in adhering to the rules set out in the document.
We do not get to extol to the world the virtues of our criminal justice system and declare us to be the harbingers of global justice when we so flippantly disregard the practices we preach to others. We do not get to proudly declare to the world that we have authored the seminal document on prisoners’ rights while trampling on those same rights the moment the public’s back is turned.