Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #3: Hernán Reyes

Watching the world’s prisons

Hernan speaking on prison panelDr. Hernán Reyes thought he was signing up for a brief stint with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after finishing his medical studies and specialization as an Ob/Gyn.  The job turned into a passion and a three-decade career, taking him to hundreds of prisons worldwide to document and bear witness to torture and other abuses. While most people are aware of the Red Cross—especially the country-specific American Red Cross, French Red Cross or Turkish Red Crescent—the ICRC itself is less known. The organization was launched in 1863 with the first Geneva Convention to ensure that the battlefield wounded weren’t left to suffer and die. Later, the ICRC helped implement wartime protocols to protect prisoners of war. The son of a United Nations translator, Reyes was born in Chile and raised in New York and Geneva. Reyes is retired from the ICRC now, living with his wife in Geneva, and serving as a Human Rights Center Senior Fellow. His grown children are traveling (and positively impacting) the world. He recently visited UC Berkeley to speak on a panel about prison conditions, solitary confinement, and hunger strikes.

Q. Your career path in medicine shifted pretty radically, from obstetrics to prisons. How did that happen?

A. I knocked on the ICRC’s door, thinking they might need a gynecologist. They said no, we need surgeons or midwives, not a gynecologist. But would you be interested in looking into prisons and prison medicine?…The last delivery I did was my youngest daughter who is now 24! All in all, I’ve spent 28 years working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, visiting hundreds of prisons in more than 40 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and practically everything in the middle, including Guantánamo and Maze prison in the UK—the worst and the best, and the most gruesome prisons you can imagine.

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Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #2 Keramet Reiter

Shedding light on solitary

Reiter

UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter is one of the nation’s leading experts on U.S. prisons, solitary confinement, and mental health. From her first blog post on crime and delinquency as a Human Rights Center Fellow at UC Berkeley in 2010 to her new book (co-edited with Human Rights Center Executive Director Alexa Koenig) Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement, Reiter has illuminated egregious flaws in the United States prison system. Her forthcoming Prisons within Prisons: The Hidden Hell of the American Supermax is due out from Yale University Press next year. Reiter recently came back to Berkeley (where she earned her Ph.D. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy in 2012) to speak about the court settlement spurred by Pelican Bay prisoners that ended indefinite detention in solitary confinement in California.

Why did you start studying prisons?

While I was in college in Boston I worked with the American Friends Service committee, which is a Quaker organization that has historically done prison reform work. They were just beginning to look at solitary confinement issues in Massachusetts. That’s when I first learned about it as a practice that people were thinking about challenging.

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