Rights for All,
Universal Human Rights,
Violations in Prisons and Jails
excerpted from the book
United States of America
- Rights for All
Amnesty International Publications,
RIGHTS FOR ALL: Introducton
There is a persistent and widespread pattern
of human rights violations in the U.S.A.
The USA was built by immigrants and claims to stand against oppression
and persecution. Yet the US authorities persistently violate the
fundamental human rights of people who have been forced by persecution
to leave their countries and seek asylum. As if they were criminals,
many asylum-seekers are placed behind bars when they arrive in
the country. Some are held in shackles. They are detained indefinitely
in conditions that are sometimes inhuman and degrading. New legislation
increases the risk that refugees may be sent back to a country
where their life or liberty is in danger-a denial of a fundamental
principle of international law.
In another denial of the rights to life
and freedom from cruel treatment, more than 350 prisoners have
been executed since 1990. A further 3,300 people await their deaths
at the hands of the US authorities. Fueled by politicians making
inflammatory and false claims about the death penalty, the rate
of executions and the number of crimes punishable by death has
relentlessly increased. International human rights standards aim
to restrict the death penalty; they forbid its use against juvenile
offenders, see it as unacceptable punishment for the mentally
impaired, and demand the strictest legal safeguards in capital
trials. In the USA, the death penalty is applied in an arbitrary
and unfair manner and is prone to bias on grounds of race or economic
While successive US governments have used ... international human
rights standards as a yardstick by which to judge other countries,
they have not consistently applied those same standards at home.
In some areas international standards offer greater human rights
protection than US domestic law, but the US authorities have refused
to recognize the primacy of international law. The USA has been
slow to agree to be bound by important international and regional
human rights treaties: it is one of only two countries which have
failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
(The other is Somalia.) Even when the USA has ratified human rights
treaties it has often done so only half-heartedly, with major
reservations. For example, it has reserved the right to use the
death penalty against juveniles, expressly forbidden by the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The USA has continued to use international law and intergovernmental
systems when they serve US foreign policy interests, but has sometimes
discarded or condemned these systems when they are perceived to
run counter to its interests.
The USA dominates the global market for
arms and security equipment exports. It has supplied, and continues
to supply, arms, security equipment and training to governments
and armed groups that commit torture, political killings and other
human rights abuses in countries around the world.
The USA has the most powerful economy in the world. Yet it is
beset by social problems including unemployment, disease and violent
crime. There are extreme disparities of wealth and power; an estimated
nine per cent of the nation's children live in extreme poverty
and many within US society are destitute. Millions of Americans
do not have access to quality educational opportunities or comprehensive
health care; some 35 million Americans lack medical insurance.
Drug and alcohol addiction are rife.
Homicide is the leading cause of death
among young black people in the USA today. One contributory factor
is the prevalence of firearms: more than 200 million handguns,
rifles, shotguns and high-powered weapons are currently in circulation
in the USA. The USA's current response to crime centres on the
imposition of harsher punishments, including mandatory minimum
prison sentences, the prosecution of juveniles as adult offenders,
longer prison terms and the removal of parole options for a range
of crimes, especially drugs offences. As a result, the USA now
puts a higher percentage of its population behind bars than almost
any other country on earth. The number of people in US prisons
and jails tripled between 1980 and 1996 to more than 1.7 million.
The number of women in prisons and jails has quadrupled over the
same period. Another 3.8 million people are on probation or parole
The poor often do not receive adequate
legal counsel to preserve all their rights. Although indigent
defendants have the right to a lawyer in criminal cases, they
are often assigned inexperienced and inadequately funded attorneys.
The problem is particularly acute in the complex area of death
penalty procedural law. It is a cruel irony that those on trial
for their lives sometimes receive the most deficient legal representation.
Federally funded legal aid for the poor in civil cases has been
drastically cut by Congress in recent years.
Despite serious attempts this century
to overcome racism, the USA has not succeeded in eradicating the
discriminatory treatment of blacks (African Americans), Latinos
and other minority groups, including Native Americans, Asian Americans
and Arab Americans. According to estimates, up to one third of
all young black men are in jail or prison, or on parole or probation.
Black people are three times less likely to be employed than whites
with similar qualifications. In practice, schools remain segregated
as many blacks and, more recently, Latinos are effectively confined
in inner-city ghettos where poverty, crime, overcrowding and poor
housing conspire to deprive them of opportunity. In the criminal
justice system there is widespread concern that drug laws in particular,
although racially neutral on the surface, are not enforced equally
against black and white offenders, although the reasons for this
are disputed. Whatever the reasons, the effect of the "war
on drugs" has been to increase the proportion of black and
Latino people in prisons and jails.
In 39 states, gay men and lesbians can be legally dismissed from
their jobs because of their sexual orientation... Twenty states
have "anti-sodomy" laws which criminalize consensual
sexual acts between adults in private.
Although the right to freedom of thought and expression is well-established
in US law, some people appear to have been targeted because of
their political beliefs or activities. More than 30 military personnel
were imprisoned in 1991 and 1992 for conscientious objection to
the war against Iraq, and were adopted by Amnesty International
as prisoners of conscience.
Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), former leader
of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Los Angeles who was sentenced
to life imprisonment for murder in 1972, was released on bail
in 1997. Amnesty International had repeatedly called for a review
of his case on the grounds that he may have been denied a fair
trial because of his political activities and beliefs. In the
1970s the BPP was the primary target of a Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) covert counter-intelligence program aimed at US political
groups believed to threaten state security. Geronimo ji Jaga was
finally granted a retrial in March 1997 (which had not taken place
by mid-l998) when a court ruled that prosecutors had suppressed
evidence that might have exonerated him. However, the Los Angeles
District Attorney has appealed against the decision to overturn
his original conviction.
Leonard Peltier, a member of the American
Indian Movement (AIM), was given two life sentences in 1977 for
the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South
Dakota, in 1975. The killings occurred during a gun battle between
Native Americans and government agents in which both sides suffered
fatalities. Amnesty International believes that Leonard Peltier
may have been denied a fair trial on political grounds; the trial
judge refused to allow the defence to introduce evidence of serious
FBI misconduct relating to the intimidation of witnesses. Leonard
Peltier is still in prison and all legal appeals have been exhausted.
Amnesty International has called for a special executive review
of the case in view of continuing concern about the fairness of
the legal process.
Civil and political rights in the USA have been fought for, and
won, after sometimes bitter battles. For 130 years after ratification,
the Bill of Rights was an expression of aspirations which were
denied to whole communities. Indigenous peoples were slaughtered,
forced off their lands and had their cultural traditions destroyed.
Slaves were "nonpersons", who were whipped, branded,
imprisoned and hanged without trial. Slavery was finally abolished
in 1865, but racial segregation remained legal until the 1960s,
underpinning a system in which black people faced discrimination
at work, at school and at the hands of the police and criminal
justice system. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920,
and continued to face gender discrimination.
At various points in the 20th century
many groups have been denied their civil rights. Workers have
been arrested and killed for labour union activities. Immigrants
have been deported for their political views. Members of minority
religions have been persecuted. During "Red scares"
after both World Wars, the civil liberties of many were violated
in the name of the very freedoms being denied them. For nearly
four decades, the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee
conducted an inquisition into the political beliefs of those it
suspected of communist sympathies.
UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS: International Standards
The international community has adopted
minimum standards to govern the conduct of states. These are based
on the precept that human rights are an international responsibility,
not simply internal matters. International human rights standards
articulate the criteria against which the conduct of any state
- including the USA-should be measured.
US treaty obligations
The USA has ratified the following international
human rights treaties. It is therefore legally bound to comply
with them. (There are other treaties which the USA has not yet
ratified, and in some cases the USA has filed reservations asserting
its intention to ignore certain provisions).
The International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR) protects fundamental rights: the right
to life; the right to freedom of expression, of conscience, and
association; the right to be free from arbitrary arrest or detention;
the right to freedom from torture or ill-treatment; the right
to a fair trial.
The Convention against Torture and Other
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention
against Torture) requires the prohibition and punishment of torture
in law and in practice. States must initiate investigations whenever
there are reasonable grounds to believe that torture or cruel,
inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has been committed,
and must bring those responsible to justice. The Convention forbids
the forced return of any person to a country where they would
risk being tortured.
The International Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obliges states to eradicate
racial discrimination, including in the judicial system.
The Convention relating to the Status
of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention), adopted in 1951 and the
Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol) define
who is a refugee, and therefore entitled to international protection.
In 1968 the USA acceded to the 1967 Protocol, by which it undertook
to apply Articles 2 to 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Other international standards
Many human rights requirements are contained
in standards which have been adopted by the international community,
but which are not in the form of treaties. Although these standards
do not technically have the legal power of treaties, they have
the moral force of having been negotiated by governments, and
of having been adopted by political bodies such as the UN General
Assembly, usually by consensus. The USA played a major part in
drawing them up, and agreed that they should be adopted.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(Universal Declaration) is a universally recognized set of principles
which identifies human rights-civil, cultural, economic, political
and social-vital to everyone's well-being.
The UN Body of Principles for the Protection
of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (Body
of Principles) contains an authoritative set of internationally
recognized minimum standards, applicable to all states, on how
detainees and prisoners should be treated.
The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the
Treatment of Prisoners (Standard Minimum Rules), set out generally
accepted good principle and practice for the treatment of prisoners.
In 1971 the UN General Assembly called on all states to implement
these rules and to incorporate them into national legislation.
The UN Safeguards guaranteeing protection
of the rights of those facing the death penalty restrict the use
of the death penalty in countries which have not yet abolished
it. Among other protective measures, they prohibit the execution
of juvenile offenders, pregnant women, new mothers or the insane.
They provide that capital punishment may only be carried out after
a legal process which gives all possible safeguards to ensure
a fair trial, including adequate legal assistance. In 1989 the
UN Economic and Social Council recommended that states eliminate
the death penalty for people suffering from mental retardation
or extremely limited mental competence.
The United Nations Rules for the Protection
of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty establish minimum standards
to protect young people in detention or prison, including a requirement
that juveniles deprived of their liberty, as a last resort, must
be segregated from adult inmates.
The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement
Officials governs the conduct of police officers, prison officials
and all other people involved in law enforcement. It states that
law enforcement officials must uphold the human rights of all
people. They may use force only when strictly necessary and only
to the extent required for the performance of their duty.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of
Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide, among
other things, that the use of force must be proportionate to the
threat faced and that firearms may be used only in self-defence
or to defend others against an imminent threat of death or serious
injury. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms is restricted
to situations where it is "strictly unavoidable in order
to protect life".
The UN Principles on the Effective Prevention
and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions
require that any killings that might be extrajudicial executions
are promptly and impartially investigated.
The UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors
contain standards to ensure that prosecutors in criminal proceedings
act in an impartial and fair manner, respecting and protecting
human dignity and upholding human rights.
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of
Lawyers provide that everyone facing criminal proceedings should
have effective access to competent legal assistance, and requires
governments to provide sufficient funding and other resources
to provide legal counsel for the poor and other disadvantaged
The UN Basic Principles on the Independence
of the Judiciary require both professional judges and lay judges
to be independent from any interference, pressure or improper
The American Declaration of the Rights
and Duties of Man (American Declaration), was adopted in 1948
along with the Charter of the Organization of American States
(OAS). The American Declaration is the cornerstone of the inter-American
system of human rights protection, and all member states of the
OAS are obliged to observe the fundamental human rights that it
POLICE BRUTALITY: A pattern of abuse
There is a widespread and persistent problem o~ police brutality
across the USA. Thousands of individual complaints about police
abuse are reported each year and local authorities pay out millions
of dollars to victims in damages after lawsuits. Police officers
have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused batons,
chemical sprays and electro-shock weapons; they have injured or
killed people by placing them in dangerous restraint holds.
The overwhelming majority of victims in
many areas are members of racial or ethnic minorities, while most
police departments remain predominantly white. Relations between
the police and members of minority communities-especially young
black and Latino males in inner city areas-are often tense, and
racial bias is reported or indicated as a factor in many instances
of police brutality.
Police officers are responsible for upholding
the law and protecting the rights of all members of society. Their
job is often difficult and sometimes dangerous. Experience from
around the world shows that constant vigilance is required to
ensure the highest standards of conduct-standards necessary to
maintain public confidence and to meet national and international
In the USA, despite reform programs in
several major police departments, the authorities still fail to
deal effectively with police officers who have committed abuses.
The disciplinary sanctions imposed on officers found guilty of
brutality are frequently inadequate, and officers are rarely prosecuted
for excessive force. The "code of silence"-in which
officers fail to report brutality or cover up abuses-commands
widespread loyalty, contributing to a climate of impunity. Although
there has been pressure on police departments to become more publicly
accountable in recent years through independent oversight mechanisms,
these remain inadequate or wholly absent in many areas.
There is no reliable national data on
the excessive use of force by police, and local reporting systems
are patchy and often unreliable. Such data is essential to enable
the authorities to take effective action. Since 1994, the federal
government has been legally required to collect national data
on police use of excessive force, but Congress has failed to provide
the funding necessary for it to do so.
Amnesty International believes that police
forces throughout the USA must be made more accountable for their
actions by the establishment of effective monitoring mechanisms.
National, state and local police authorities should ensure that
police brutality and excessive force are not tolerated: all allegations
of police abuse should be promptly, fairly and independently investigated
and those responsible brought to justice. Instead of simply paying
compensation to victims, emphasis should be placed on stopping
and preventing the abuses.
VIOLATIONS IN PRISONS AND JAILS: Needless brutality
"A pattern of needless and officially
sanctioned brutality. "
This was how the treatment of prisoners
in Pelican Bay State Prison, California, was described by a federal
court in 1995. The abuses included severe beatings during the
forcible removal of prisoners from cells, the cruel use of shackles,
and the unwarranted use of firearms. The judge found that the
guards were rarely disciplined for excessive force and covered
up abuses with false or inadequate reports.
Every day in prisons and jails across
the USA, the human rights of prisoners are violated. In many facilities,
violence is endemic. In some cases, guards fail to stop inmates
assaulting each other. In others, the guards are themselves the
abusers, subjecting their victims to beatings and sexual abuse.
Prisons and jails use mechanical, chemical and electroshock methods
of restraint that are cruel, degrading and sometimes life-threatening.
The victims of abuse include pregnant women and the mentally ill.
Thousands of prisoners are isolated in
solitary confinement for long periods. Many prisoners do not receive
adequate care for serious physical and mental health problems.
Many of these practices violate US laws
as well as international human rights standards, but the mechanisms
available to prevent abuses and provide redress are inadequate.
The weakness of independent scrutiny, together with public demands
for harsher treatment of offenders, have created a climate in
which serious violations can occur and continue without being
In mid-l997 there were over 1.7 million people incarcerated in
US jails and prisons, more than three times the 1980 figure. The
increase reflected long-term rises in crime, and state and federal
sentencing policies which have led to longer prison terms, fewer
releases on parole, and mandatory minimum prison sentences, especially
for drugs offences.
Over 60 per cent of prisoners are from
racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Half are African Americans,
even though they comprise just over 12 per cent of the US population.
The proportion of prisoners from minority groups has been growing
steadily. One reason for this has been the disproportionate impact
of drug sentencing policies on black (Americans. Between 1985
and 1995 drugs offences accounted for 42 percent of the increase
in the number of blacks jailed, compared to 26 percent for whites.
There has also been a higher rate of increase
in women prisoners than men: women now comprise over 10 per cent
of the jail population and over six per cent of the prison population.
In 1970 there were about 5,600 women in state and federal prisons;
by 1997 there were 75,000.4 The increase is due in large part
to a massive rise in the number of women incarcerated for drugs
Supermaximum security units
Since the late 1980s the federal system
and an increasing number of states have built so-called supermaximum
security (or "supermax") facilities. These are designed
for the long-term isolation of large numbers of prisoners whom
the authorities consider to be too dangerous or disruptive to
be held in the general population of maximum security prisons.
In 1997, 36 states and the federal government were reported to
operate at least 57 supermax facilities, housing more than 13,000
prisoners. Many more are under construction.
Amnesty International recognizes that
it is sometimes necessary to segregate prisoners for the safety
of others or for their own protection However, many aspects of
the conditions in US supermax facilities violate international
standards, and in some facilities conditions constitute cruel,
inhuman or degrading treatment. Prolonged isolation in conditions
of reduced sensory stimulation can cause severe physical and psychological
The UN Human Rights Committee stated in
1995 that conditions in certain US maximum security prisons were
"incompatible" with international standards. The UN
Special Rapporteur on torture (an expert appointed by the UN Commission
on Human Rights) reported in 1996 on cruel, inhuman and degrading
treatment in H-Unit, Oklahoma, and Pelican Bay Security Housing
Prisoners typically spend between 22 and
24 hours a day confined to small, solitary cells in which they
eat, sleep and defecate. In many units, cells are considerably
smaller than the 80 square feet (7.4 sq m) recommended as the
minimum by the ACA, adding to the claustrophobic and unhealthy
conditions. In some units, cells have no windows to the outside
and prisoners have little or no access to natural light or fresh
air, in violation of international standards. For example, prisoners
in the Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, Maryland,
are confined in 65 sq ft (6 sq m), sealed, single cells. For several
years they had no outside exercise until the Justice Department
threatened a lawsuit. Prisoners are now allowed out of their cells
for four to five hours a week, one hour of which must be outdoors.
In August 1997 Texas opened the W.J. Estelle
High Security Unit, a 660-bed facility where prisoners are isolated
in windowless cells for 23 hours or more a day. The concrete cells
have no natural light and the solid steel doors have narrow slits
which allow only a minimal view of the corridor outside.
Generally, supermax facilities provide
no work, training or vocational programs. Opportunities for educational
study are non-existent or extremely limited. The facilities are
usually designed to minimize contact with other inmates and guards,
with remote-controlled doors and video cameras replacing contact
with staff. The cells tend to have solid steel doors rather than
bars, cutting off sound and visual contact with others, including
prisoners in the next cell. No televisions, radios, newspapers
or books are allowed in the most restricted units. Contact with
the outside world is also often severely limited and visits are
usually conducted through a glass panel. In the Maximum Control
Complex (MCC) at Westville, Indiana, prisoners were not allowed
to wear watches or ask the time until a hunger-strike and a lawsuit
led to some court-imposed changes. Many of these conditions are
a flagrant breach of minimum international standards for the treatment
US courts have ordered limited changes
to the operation of some facilities. However, they have not ruled
that confinement to supermax units is unconstitutional per se.
In general, the courts have allowed states wide latitude in imposing
restrictive conditions, including long-term isolation, when it
is claimed that these serve legitimate security needs.
The length of time prisoners spend in
supermax facilities varies. Many units do not provide any form
of staged system that permits prisoners who behave well to move
to less restrictive units. In some facilities, the process of
review is discretionary, or the criteria for moving out of the
units are vague or difficult to meet. Some prisoners may spend
years in supermax units. In 22 jurisdictions, it is possible for
inmates to complete their sentences in supermax housing and be
released to the community without any transitional stage.
The prison authorities state that inmates
are placed in supermax units for reasons such as violent or predatory
behaviour, repeated rule violations or attempted escapes. However,
evidence suggests that many prisoners in supermax units have not
warranted such a restrictive regime. For example, a number of
states have moved all death row prisoners into supermax units,
regardless of their disciplinary records. Prisoners may be assigned
for long periods to the supermax unit in Wabash, Indiana, for
relatively minor disciplinary infractions, such as insolence towards
staff, and the period may be extended for transgressions committed
there. Others have reportedly been moved to supermax units because
of overcrowding or because they have complained about prison conditions.
Women in Valley State Prison, California, for example, have alleged
that they were assigned, or threatened with assignment, to the
supermax unit if they complained about sexual abuse by guards.
Some prisoners have reportedly been put in supermax units because
of their political affiliations, although the broad grounds for
confinement make such allegations difficult to verify.
Even mentally ill prisoners continue to
be assigned to some supermax facilities despite evidence that
the conditions are particularly damaging and inappropriate for
them. Prison specialists say that mentally ill prisoners are more
likely than other inmates to end up in such units because of behavioural
difficulties in prison, and lack of resources to treat them. Other
prisoners develop mental illness while in the unit.
Both the treatment for, and monitoring
of, mental health are reported to be inadequate in many supermax
facilities. The Justice Department found that psychotic inmates
continued to be held at the Maryland supermax prison in 1996,
despite the state's policy to exclude the mentally ill from the
unit. Seriously mentally ill prisoners have been held in H-Unit,
Oklahoma, without receiving appropriate evaluation or treatment.
Prisoners in MCC Westville were reportedly denied adequate mental
health monitoring (as required under a court agreement) and many
exhibited signs of mental illness. Such lack of adequate evaluation
of the mental health of prisoners in isolation is contrary to
both international and U.S. professional standards.
States of America - Rights for All