In Bad Company
How US criminal justice stacks up
with the rest of the world
by Ron Chepesiuk
Toward Freedom magazine. October/November 2001
Execution of children, sub-human prison conditions, sexual
abuse of women prisoners, the economic exploitation of prisoners,
brutal incarceration of refugees-these are some of the human rights
violations for which the US regularly takes the moral high ground
and condemns other countries. But since the 1990s, much to Uncle
Sam's discomfort, critics have charged that the self-proclaimed
arbiter of the world's moral standards has no business criticizing
other countries about the abysmal state of their prison systems
while its own laws and criminal justice practices remain out of
line with recognized international humans rights standards.
Compare US prison conditions with those found in other places
and you find they have much in common with some of the country's
biggest "enemies," as well as with countries where being
incarcerated is comparable to surviving in a gulag. Too harsh
an assessment'? If you think so, consider how the US stacks up
against the rest of the world on key prison issues.
The numbers continue to rise globally, but no where more quickly
than in the US. Human Rights Watch (HRW) puts the world inmate
population at between eight and 10 million; the US is responsible
for up to 25 percent of the total. When compared to the global
community, in fact, the US figures are starkly disproportionate
to its population. Europe, for example, has a population of 330
million, but only about 300,000 prisoners; India, with a population
four times that of the US, has about 500,000 prisoners.
So, what accounts for the US's huge prison population? Unlike
in many other countries, most prisoners in the US are nonviolent
offenders, meaning they're in jail for offenses involving neither
harm nor the threat of harm toward a victim. "Credit"
the war on drugs for that state of affairs, because most of those
in jail are there for possession, not sale, of narcotics. In fact,
77 percent of the growth in the number of inmates from 1978 to
2000 involved nonviolent offenses. In all, only about 27.6 percent
of male and 14.4 percent of female inmates are violent offenders.
On this hot issue, the US is becoming increasingly isolated
from the rest of the world. Between 1976-the year capital punishment
was reinstated in the US-and August 2001, more than 725 people
were executed. According to surveys, the overall status of the
death penalty by the year 2000 for 194 nations went this way:
76 nations were defined as completely abolitionist, 11 had abolished
it for ordinary crimes, and 36 retained the death penalty but
were de facto abolitionist. This leaves only 71 death penalty
During the past decade, the movement globally has clearly
been toward abolition of the death penalty. The US is woefully
out of step with the rest of the world on this issue. In an April
1997 resolution, the UN Commission on Human Rights called on all
member states that have not yet abolished the death penalty to
consider suspending executions, with the intent of abolishing
them. Meanwhile, the European Union has made the abolition of
capital punishment a precondition for membership.
TREATMENT OF CHILDREN
Prisoners in Iran are executed for adultery and sodomy; in
China, Malaysia, the Congo and Nigeria, for armed robbery; in
China and Vietnam for economic offenses, including embezzlement
and corruption by public officials.
And the US? It executes children, yet another reason the country
finds itself in an extremely lonely position. Since 1997, it's
the only country known to have executed inmates who committed
crimes while under age 18. Five states-Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria,
Yemen, and Saudi Arabia-gave up killing children more than a decade
ago. Today, the US and Somalia hold the dubious distinction of
being the only countries not to have ratified the Convention on
the Rights of Children.
And look at the company the US is keeping on this issue! Uncle
Sam is the world's fourth ranked executioner, behind only China,
Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it's the only Western democracy
that still puts prisoners to death.
In its latest report, HRW notes, "While prison conditions
can vary greatly from country to country and facility to facility,
standards in most countries are shockingly low." Here, the
US is neither an exception to the norm nor
In May 2000, the UN rebuked the US for the "brutality"
found in its prisons, the first time that's happened. The committee
of ten independent experts that wrote the report urged the US
to abolish such practices as the use of electro-shock stun belts
and restraint chairs on uncooperative inmates, pointing out that
they were a violation of the international convention against
At about the same time, Amnesty International (AI) publicly
criticized the US for its use of 'super-rnaximum security prisons
in which "inmates are often locked up for twenty-three and
a half hours a day. They eat and exercise alone, live under extreme
levels of surveillance and control, and have little or no opportunity
for education and vocational training."
AI described the US's "super max" prisons as "high
tech cages," a term with a familiar ring, intentional or
not. It sounds like "tiger cages," the term the US used
to describe North Vietnamese prisons during the Vietnam War.
Another big problem worldwide is the continued reliance, even
in the richest countries, on what HRW describes as "old,
antiquated and physically decaying prison facilities." According
to the group's investigations, "nineteenth century prisons
needing constant upkeep remain in use in a number of countries,
including the US, Mexico, Russia, Italy, and the United Kingdom."
After ratifying the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1994, the US had
to show how it was complying. The report was five years late.
Another is due this November, but since nothing has changed, its
a safe bet that the foot-dragging will continue.
We all know the horror stories about China's prison labor
system and the sale of prison-made products in the US. Congress
and the US media constantly wag a finger. But again, the US can't
seize the moral high ground.
In both places, prisoners are forced to work or face the consequences.
In Florida, for example, more than 64,000 prisoners are required
to make boots, licenses, and other items. In a bit of sleazy irony,
some products are exported to Third World countries, such as Trinidad,
Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Sure, US law bans the importing
of prison-made goods and restricts their sale across state lines.
But no federal law prohibits their export.
In the federal prison system, as well as many states, inmates
are put to work specifically to save the taxpayer money. A prisoner
who refuses can expect to be denied "privileges" or
shut up in a supermax facility. Is there a term other than "slave
labor" to describe this arrangement?
Human rights groups have documented the despicable sexual
abuse against women in prisons worldwide. As usual, the US is
in bad company. In May 2000, AI released a report documenting
the cases of 1000 women who say they were sexually assaulted during
their time in US prisons. "Our Laws are woefully inadequate
to protect women in US prisons, too many of' whom are subject
to sexual assault, harassment, and barbaric shackling practices,"
charged William Schultz, AI s US Executive Director.
I could go on and on, addressing issues such as the treatment
of refugees and the mentally retarded. But the picture should
be crystal clear by now. The US violates human rights in its prisons
every day, and almost nothing is being done about it. The abuses
are many of the same ones committed by countries notorious for
their disregard of human rights laws and standards. Particularly
on one issue-the death penalty-the self-styled "moral arbiter"
remains in the Dark Ages, dramatically out of step with the world
Hopefully, the massive and mounting evidence will lead citizens
to pressure the US to change its prison ways. Otherwise, it will
continue to be grouped-and rightfully so- with some of the worse
human rights violators on the planet.