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A voice of reason too loud to be ignored

By Paul Lewin, Research Director and Policy Analyst, Common Sense for Drug Policy

For years the 1,000,000 member strong international human rights organization, Amnesty International, has confined its energies to raising awareness of political prisoners in foreign countries and opposing the most extreme forms of torture and execution.

Six months ago, all of that changed, when Amnesty International announced its Rights for All campaign and began the organization's first in-depth examination of human rights abuses within the United States.

Although not limited to abuses within America's vast network of penitentiaries, some of Amnesty International's most compelling reports have focused on the treatment of incarcerated persons. In March of 1999, AI issued a report entitled, "Not part of my sentence" Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody. The cover of the report features an African-American woman shackled to a hospital bed as she endures the pain of childbirth. Inside, the report unequivocally states, "International human rights standards articulate the criteria against which the conduct of the authorities of any nation, including the USA, should be measured."

However, the USA has refused "to ratify key human rights treaties, has reserved the right not to implement important provisions of treaties that it has ratified and has refused to permit people within the USA to bring complaints about alleged violations of their human rights to international monitoring bodies."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the principal international treaty setting out fundamental civil and political rights for all persons. One hundred and forty nations have ratified the treaty, which means they are legally bound to uphold its provisions which include:

  • The right not to be subjected to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • The right of any detained person to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person
  • The right to privacy without arbitrary interference.

Even though the USA signed the ICCPR in 1992, it reserved the right to refrain from implementing certain provisions or to restrict their application. For instance, the US government said that it would not be held to a higher standard of 'cruel and unusual punishment' than determined by the US Supreme Court. By limiting interpretation of the treaty to US standards, the government has effectively nullified the concept of agreeing to an international standard.

Documenting the experience of women behind bars

Amnesty International has found that the 'War on Drugs' is the source of the exploding women's population behind bars, now estimated at 138,000. "The Department of Justice found that women were over represented among low level drug offenders who were non-violent, had minimal or no prior criminal history, and were not principal figures in criminal organizations or activities, but nevertheless received sentences similar to 'high level' drug offenders under the mandatory sentencing policies." From 1986 to 1996, the number of women sentenced to state prison for drug crimes increased tenfold. Nationally, one in three women in prison and one in four women in jail are incarcerated for violating a drug law.

The report also documented the presence of serious sexual abuse of women prisoners. "Many women in prisons and jails in the USA are victims of sexual abuse by staff, including sexually offensive language; male staff touching inmates' breasts and genitals when conducting searches; male staff watching inmates while they are naked; and rape." The report also noted that "contrary to international standards, prisons and jails in the USA employ men to guard women and place relatively few restrictions on the duties of male staff. As a consequence, much of the touching and viewing of their bodies by staff that women experience as shocking and humiliating is permitted by law."

While mechanisms exist for women to report allegations of sexual abuse, it is difficult to prove and many fear retaliation. Also, women can only use prison or jail procedures to complain about treatment that violates the institution's policies. They cannot use these procedures to complain about being searched or watched while being naked by male guards if these activities are allowed by the institution's guidelines. Currently it is not a crime for a male guard to engage in sexual activities with women in 13 states.

In response to a lawsuit filed in federal court over the sexual abuse of a female prisoner, the Bureau of Prisons has agreed to provide all inmates with the telephone number of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, so that they can report sexual assaults, threats and other ill-treatment. The BOP has also agreed to implement a training program for its staff to educate them on policies governing sexual contact and the special needs of women.

In addition to documenting evidence of sexual abuse and educating the American public on the experience of women behind bars, Amnesty International's report addressed the use of restraint technology on sick and pregnant women, the adequacy of health care for women, and the impact of sensory deprivation on women in super-maximum security facilities.

The Campaign Gains Meaningful Victories

There are many organizations and activists working to further social justice and better treatment for incarcerated persons, but effecting change is slow and difficult. However, in a few short months, Amnesty International's powerful voice of reason has been able to secure several meaningful victories, which should improve the conditions of some prisoners. These victories include:

  • March 1999 - Bills have unanimously passed out of the Washington State Senate and House, which criminalize sexual assault between male guards and female prisoners. Amnesty activists were instrumental in rallying it through the legislature. The bills now go to a joint committee to work out any differences in language.
  • Feb. 26, 1999 - The bill criminalizing sexual contact between male guards and female prisoners passed out of both houses in the state of Virginia and is awaiting signature by the Governor.
  • Feb. 21, 1999 - After an inquiry into abuse at a Maine Youth Center (juvenile detention facility) and constant uproar from the local press and AI, the Governor was forced to have an independent study of the facility done resulting in a call for improvements to mental health services, an increase in staff and revamping of treatment plans.
  • Jan. 27, 1999 - A federal judge issued an injunction against the use of stun belts in Los Angeles County courts as part of a $50 million lawsuit filed by an inmate who was jolted during a hearing. Amnesty International filed an amicus brief in the suit.
  • Jan. 26, 1999 - Days after Amnesty International condemned the use of stun belts on unruly inmates during a nationally televised news program, the New York Corrections Department canceled its order for the devices.

By focusing on abuses within the United States, Amnesty International has risked alienating its 300,000 American members, which is a serious decision for an organization that is almost entirely supported through member contributions. But in doing so, Amnesty International provides an enduring service to the 1.8 million persons behind bars in America, and the other 260 million Americans who would otherwise be unwitting accomplices to treatment that does not befit a civilized nation.

Amnesty International's reports are available free of charge through the Internet at: and for a small fee by calling: (212) 807-8400.

Support the efforts of Amnesty International's "Rights For All" campaign. CLICK HERE for the"THANK YOU" and message of support.

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