Rights for All,
Universal Human Rights,
Police Brutality,
Violations in Prisons and Jails

excerpted from the book

United States of America - Rights for All

Amnesty International

Amnesty International Publications, 1998


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 status.

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 people.

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 influence.

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 enshrines.


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 requirements.

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.



"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 effectively challenged.

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 offences.

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 damage.

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 Unit (SHU).

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 of prisoners.

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.

United States of America - Rights for All

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