Eric Holder sent a letter dated July 23rd, 2013 to his counterpart in Russia assuring Russia that the U.S. would not seek the death penalty against Edward Snowden, nor would the U.S. torture him. Eric Holder further believes that his letter negates Edward Snowden's claim for asylum from the United States.
It's an interesting concept to ponder.
The Russian decision about Edward Snowden's asylum request will have more to do with a deal that benefits Russia rather than any other consideration and Eric Holder's letter is meant to give Russia political cover for making the decision Washington wants. It's a touchy, political situation regardless of how you feel about Edward Snowden.
The letter (pdf) gives good lip service. Will it be enough to convince a Russian government who would rather this annoyance be gone? Which way will the wind blow? Toward better relations with the U.S. or will Russia tell us to buzz off? Conceivably, it can come down to how the both Russia and the U.S. define "torture" (the international definition is clear as mud). That definition could well take into account the over extensive use of solitary confinement in the U.S. detainment systems.
Before you decide.....
Of the ten worst prisons in the world; five are in the United States and two are in Russia. (No one can get in to see what a N. Korean prison is like, so this might not be a fair source.)
The United States holds more people in isolation than any other country. What the average person knows about solitary confinement and protective custody is limited to what they see on film and tv. If we use the John Yoo definition, Edward Snowden could be subjected to sleep deprivation, constant light, loud music/klaxons, intentionally disorienting treatment, forced stress positioning, denial of basic grooming supplies and more. John Yoo thought water boarding was ok. Eric Holder's single sentence specifying the U.S. vows to not torture Edward Snowden without specifying what "torture" means is a false assurance, but it's quite possible that Russia would find a false assurance acceptable.
Criminal justice has come a long way from the days of using red hot pokers to ...whatever or the rack. I'm glad to say that many of the commonly used devices of the the 16th and 17th centuries have been retired. Those devices are part of why we have the 8th Amendment, but it's the red hot poker that most people use for their yardstick on human torture. The bar on torture today and how it is defined today is much lower, yet we still rationalize brutal treatment because after all, we retired water boarding, didn't we? Most of us are conditioned to think of solitary isolation as standard fare to ensure law and order. We don't think about how dehumanizing our detention system is and if we do think about it; we justify it as "they deserve it". We don't think about what a dehumanized person will do after they are released. We're of the opinion they will never be released.
There's a growing movement pushing for limiting solitary confinement (pdf) to no more than 15 days at a time and no more than 3 months per calendar year. Any more than that and you are torturing your prisoner. What we need to think about is what happens when we release a prisoner who has been dehumanized for decades.
Excluding pretrial detention "protective custody" arrangements and ICE detentions; the U.S. holds as many as 80,000 people post conviction at any given time in isolation. That's 23/7 in a 7x10 box for up to 40 years straight. Conditions can run the gamut from no clothes, no bedding, no soap, 50 squares of toilet paper per day, no reading materials or anything to relieve the monotony to having all these things plus a television; but with no human contact whatsoever as the cells are sound proofed. There are many ways to get assigned to solitary confinement. Predictably, death row and child abusers end up there. Having a gang tat lands you there. Piss off the wrong guard and you're there. Be a kid in an adult jail and well, hopefully you will survive, but too many don't. Continue to be an activist and they'll put you there so you can't make phone calls. Just receiving the wrong greeting card can land you in isolation. Once there, you have to earn your way out and that can take years.
I saw a comment a couple days ago insisting the solitary confinement is absolutely necessary. Another asking if we should eliminate isolation therapy in mental health settings (BTW, the answer is yes for the most part (pdf)). Yet another declared that solitary confinement is the "just" reward for breaking the law. We are as a society, conditioned to believe solitary confinement makes for less violent jails and prisons when studies suggest the opposite is true. Especially when it's used on criminals that are mentally ill. We've lost sight of the fact that the reason we put people away is that they are unable to successfully live within society. We've lost sight of the societal retraining aspects of incarceration.
U.S. citizens would be surprised to find out just how many countries find the U.S. criminal punishment system to be barbaric. More than one group wants the U.N.'s Juan Mendez to review the U.S. prison system's over use of solitary confinement.
We punitively put people in SHUs or ad segs whenever prison officials "justify" it. Solitary confinement can go from days to years to 40 years with no thought of the permanent damage it can do. There's no planning for integrating these prisoners into society after the sentence is served. Tom Clemens, Colorado's Prison Chief's murder was at the hands of a man who spent years in solitary confinement only to be dumped onto the street at the end of his sentence with no time between the two extremes to re-acclimate to society. The saddest part of the Tom Clemens tragedy is that Mr. Clemons was on a mission to reduce the 47% of ad seg (administrative segregation) felons going directly to the streets to zero. It was at 23% when he was murdered.
Most people view solitary confinement as a "just" punishment, but what of those who were confined in isolation that were found to be innocent? Nelson Mandela was considered a very dangerous man to the South African government. He was kept in solitary confinement for years. The three hikers captured by Iran were kept in solitary confinement. What about those who've been exonerated by DNA? It seems that solitary confinement is used indiscriminately against the innocent as well as the guilty.
I hear that Russian prisons and jails are not better than they are in the U.S. They're worse, but at least you have human contact (and more?). It's hard to say what impact Eric Holder's letter will have on the Russian Immigration's take on Edward Snowden's asylum petition. The Russian government doesn't tolerate dissidents or activists. One thing is certain, if Edward Snowden is taken into U.S. custody he will be held in isolation and allowed no contact with anyone but his lawyers and that contact will be limited because the charges are concerned with classified information. One question is if the Russian Minister considers this type of pretrial detainment as torture. The other questions surround the likeliness that any future Snowden trial be a forgone conclusion, a show trial where he will be found guilty and sentenced to a Supermax prison for the rest of his natural life. Would that be considered a "fair" trial and would that probable sentence be considered tortuous?