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Amnesty International:

US Fails to Deliver Fundamental Promise of Rights for All

On October 6, 1998, Amnesty International launched a campaign that they hope will improve human rights protections for all who live in the United States. For 37 years, Amnesty International has attempted to convince our US leaders that cruelty, and violations of human rights is not something that happens "somewhere else." Serious human rights violations are occurring in the United States.

United States of America Rights for All report reveals a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations in the USA. It points to entrenched and nationwide police brutality. It highlights the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, many of whom are held in inhumane and degrading conditions.

In this report, which is part of a worldwide campaign against human rights abuses in the USA, Amnesty International challenges the US authorities at all levels:

  • to bring US laws and practices into line with international standards
  • to reinforce the USA's commitment to international human rights protection; and
  • to work towards a world where the freedoms and right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a reality.

Amnesty International's Recommendations on the treatment of inmates in Prisons and Jails:

Federal, state and local authorities should develop, implement and rigorously enforce standards for correctional facilities that are consistent with international human rights standards forbidding torture and ill-treatment.

1. The authorities should make clear that brutality and excessive force will not be tolerated and should establish independent bodies to investigate all allegations of abuse thoroughly and impartially. Officials responsible for abuses­­including failure to report misconduct­­should be disciplined and, where appropriate, prosecuted.

2. The authorities should take all measures to make sure that sexual abuse of inmates, including rape, does not take place in correctional facilities. All alleged incidents should be independently investigated and those responsible brought to justice.

3. Federal, state and local authorities should ensure that adequate medical care is provided whenever necessary, free of charge. Health care and treatment should accord with professionally recognized standards. Medical personnel who have grounds for suspecting that torture or ill-treatment have taken place should be required to report cases to independent authorities.

4. Measures to prevent and punish torture and ill-treatment, including rape and other sexual abuse, of women should include an explicit prohibition of sexual abuse by staff; informing staff and inmates of inmates rights' and that offenders will be subject to punishment; restricting the role of male staff with regard to female inmates in line with Rule 53 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; investigating all complaints in line with best practice for the investigation of sexual assault; protecting women who make complaints from retaliation; and providing appropriate redress and care to victims of abuse. The routine use of restraints on pregnant women should be prohibited, and women should never be restrained during labor; restraints should only be used on pregnant women as a last resort and should never put the safety of a woman or the fetus at risk. Health care for female inmates should meet recognized community standards and should recognize the particular health needs of women.

5. Children in prisons and jails should be completely separated from adults, unless it is considered in the child's best interests not to do so.

6. The authorities in charge of supermax units should amend their policies to ensure that no prisoner is confined long-term or indefinitely in conditions of isolation and reduced sensory stimulation. The authorities should improve conditions in such units so that prisoners have more out-of-cell time; better access to fresh air and natural light; improved exercise facilities; increased association, where possible, with other inmates and access to work, training or vocational programs; and are not housed in windowless cells. The mentally ill or those at risk of mental illness should be removed from supermax units. The authorities should establish clear criteria for and regular review of placement in supermax units.

7. The authorities should ban the use of remote control electro-shock belts by law enforcement and correctional agencies. Law enforcement and correctional agencies should suspend the use of other electro-shock weapons pending the outcome of a rigorous, independent and impartial inquiry into the use and effects of the equipment.

8. The federal authorities should establish an independent review of the use of OC (pepper) spray by law enforcement and correctional agencies. Authorities who continue to authorize the spray should introduce strict guidelines and limitations on its use, with clear monitoring procedures.

9. Four-point restraints should only be used when strictly necessary as an emergency short-term measure to prevent damage or injury, and in accordance with international and US professional medical standards. The federal authorities should institute an urgent national inquiry into the use of restraint chairs in prisons and jails.

10. Federal and state authorities should establish and fund agencies completely independent of correctional authorities to monitor conditions in prisons and jails, with powers to take action to remedy problems.

11. The federal government and Congress should use their legislative, financial and other powers to encourage, and if necessary require, recalcitrant states to comply fully with international standards for the protection of the rights of people in prisons and jails.

12. The federal government should review the impact of legislation which restricts inmates' access to courts, including the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and ask Congress to amend provisions that have unduly restricted inmates' ability to use the courts to end ill-treatment. The federal government and Congress should provide the necessary additional funds to allow the Justice Department to fulfill its mandate under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 to investigate conditions in correctional facilities and to take action when necessary.

Rights for All (ISBN 1-887204-15-6) can be purchased from:

Amnesty International U.S.A.
National Office - Publications
322 Eighth Ave
New York City, NY 10001

Amnesty International Press Conference
October 6, 1998 - Washington, DC

Nora Callahan and Paul Lewin, of The November Coalition, attended the Amensty International press conference. The following is a transcript of the question asked by Paul Lewin and the answer provided by Anglea Wright, a researcher for Amnesty International.

Lewin: Since there are currently 400,000 drug law violators behind bars, I was wondering if you were going to examine the racial impact caused by selective enforcement, prosecution and sentencing of those drug laws?

Wright: We've not studied directly the impact of those laws­­although in our report we do cite that as the context which has led to an increase in the racial disparity of people in prison in the US. I think there is no doubt that there is a disparate impact in the way the drug laws are being pursued in this country, throughout many of the states and in the federal system­­the Federal Sentencing Commission itself has expressed concern about that. We certainly think that is something that has to be looked at. I think it was last year for the first time the number of African-American people in US prisons exceeded 50% of the prison population although they constitute only just over 12% of the general population. The increase is largely due to the disproportional impact of drug sentencing laws. The growth of imprisonment for drug offenses among black offenders has increased much more than among white offenders. These are very largely nonviolent offenses. The impact among women in prison, and particularly black women in prison has been equally devastating. So, certainly weve noted the impact of that, even though we havent directly studied it ourselves. There have been plenty of studies conducted in the United States on this issue and its time its really taken into account. There are international standards outlawing discrimination and unlike in the US system it is not necessary to prove intent to discriminate if the effect is clear disparate treatment and impact, then that in itself is a violation of international standards.

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