Human-rights-driven judicial decree may alter solitary imprisonment in Palau

800px-Koror_JailWhile most of us Stateside were making ready for last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, an overseas American was issuing a remarkable ruling against solitary confinement conditions in the South Pacific island Republic of Palau.

The November 25 order captioned In the Matter of McClain Angelino for a Writ of Habeas Corpus granted the sought-after writ. What is more, the ruling, by Associate Justice Ashby Pate, condemned the entire solitary confinement system in Palau’s Koror Jail. (photo credit) The order concluded:

‘Although the Court recognizes that its particular jurisdiction here is confined within the four corners of this particular Petitioner’s Emergency Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, the Court strongly urges and recommends the Director of the Bureau of Public Safety, the Warden of the Koror Jail, and all those acting on their behalf, to immediately CEASE AND DESIST from the use of the solitary confinement quarters FOR ANY REASON, until such time as the facility is equipped to be operated in a humane and constitutional fashion and reviewed by a competent constitutional authority….’

Palau was a U.S. trustee state in the post-World War II period. Since achieving independence in the mid-1990s, the Republic of Palau has maintained 1 U.S. appointee among the 4 members of its the Palau Supreme Court. Pate has served in that capacity for about 2 years; I met when he spoke here at Georgia Law shortly before leaving his law practice in Birmingham, Alabama, to take up the post.

The case to which Pate was assigned as trial judge, Angelino, arose out of a complaint filed by petitioner, “a 19-year-old male” who “could easily pass for … 13 or 14” — a “child,” as the ruling calls him, “at most 5’3 tall and .. at most 120 pounds.” The petitioner had “been incarcerated off and on at least since he was 14 years old for various assaults and burglaries, as well as at least two unsuccessful escape attempts,” and had psychiatric problems that an expert witness said might’ve been exacerbated by conditions of prolonged solitary confinement.

To test petitioner’s claims, Justice Pate conducted a site visit. He pulls no punches in his 1st-person description of solitary (used, as he explains, because the jail is so old that even young, weak, tiny prisoners like petitioner can otherwise escape pretty much at will):

‘…I was in a room of near total darkness, illuminated only by the diffuse light coming from the open door behind us. There was no light bulb in the only exposed and broken socket set in the ten-foot ceiling, and the hard concrete floor was strewn with trash, what appeared to be broken glass, dank wet magazine pages, and soiled clothes. The stench of urine and feces was overpowering. There was no sink, no toilet, and no ventilation other than a small grated opening in the iron door, no bed or bedding, no light, and no drain.
‘…As the door closed, the heat and the stench combined were so overwhelming that I had to resist the urge to physically be sick. After the door closed, at least eighty-percent of the cell was in total darkness, and only a pale column of diffuse light came in through the narrow grating in the iron door, and that was only because the door to the outside remained ajar as a result of our visit.
‘…The sounds from the outside, prisoners murmuring and clanging doors, weirdly reverberated in the confined space, as they would in an echo chamber. The effect was a disorienting combination of utter sensory deprivation, at least with respect to vision and touch, coupled with a nauseating sensory overload of putrid smell and booming sound. After approximately one minute, I asked to be released.’

Pate’s ruling declared the conditions of confinement violative of Article IV § 10 of the Palau Constitution, which states:

‘Torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, and excessive fines are prohibited.’

Citing Palau case law, Pate found as the source for that prohibition the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so examined international human rights law. Mentioned were, inter alia, customary international law, a 2011 U.N. report, U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, commentary by the U.N. Committee Against Torture, and jurisprudence of the European and Inter-American human rights courts. His bottom line:

‘[T]he conditions in the solitary confinement quarters of the Koror Jail fail to meet even the minimum standards of internationally recognized human decency, and … flagrantly violate Petitioner’s constitutional and human rights.’

The order is an impressive national-court application of international human rights norms. Look forward to learning more of the state’s response to this condemnation of its incarceration practices.