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Old 07-23-2005, 03:51 PM
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Default Violence and brutality in the prison system

(this is an older article but worthy of the read)
Amnesty International released its report "United States of America--Rights for All" on October 6. The report paints a chilling picture of American society, including police brutality, abuse of children, prisoners, asylum-seekers and others, and the use of high-tech tools of repression and torture. Numerous violations of international standards of human rights are cited, as well as the role of the US in exporting weapons to governments known to carry out torture, and training the personnel to use these weapons. The report is the basis of a year-long campaign planned by the human rights group to bring US human rights violations to worldwide attention.

As part of a detailed examination of the Amnesty International report by the World Socialist Web Site, today's installment deals with the fourth chapter: "Violations in prisons and jails: Needless brutality."

"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 electro-shock methods of restraint that are cruel, degrading and sometimes life-threatening. The victims of abuse include pregnant women and the mentally ill."

This is Amnesty International's description of a prison system in the US based on punishment and incapacitation, and a disregard and violation of internationally established standards of safeguards to protect prisoners. This chapter from the human rights organization's recently released report contains documentation of so many incidents of brutality against prisoners that this article can only serve to call attention to the most alarming of the abuses.

As of mid-1997, 1.7 million people were held in US jails and prisons. This figure has doubled since 1980. According to Amnesty, the increase reflects "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." Racial and ethnic minorities account for more than 60 percent of the prison population. The number of women prisoners has increased from 5,600 in 1970 to 75,000 in 1997.

Conditions in prisons include: "overflowing toilets and pipes; toxic and insanitary environments; prisoners forced to sleep on filthy floors without mattresses; cells infested with vermin and lacking ventilation." Many jails and prisons have no policies and procedures on the use of force, and prison personnel lack adequate training.

State legislation has led to increased numbers of children held in adult facilities, putting them at great risk for physical and sexual abuse. The majority of US states have recently passed legislation allowing juveniles to be prosecuted as adults when they are accused of specific crimes, especially murder. As of June 1998 more than 3,500 children were being held in adult prison facilities.

The US prison system has steadily shifted away from rehabilitation of inmates in recent years. In 1994 Congress voted to halt the use of federal funds for higher education for prisoners. As of last year, 36 states and the federal government were operating 57 supermaximum security (or "supermax") facilities, housing more than 13,000 prisoners, designed for long-term isolation of those prisoners deemed too dangerous by authorities to be held alongside the general prison population. Prisoners in these facilities spend 22 to 24 hours a day confined to small, solitary cells, many with no windows and little access to natural light or fresh air.

Management of prison facilities has been increasingly assigned to private firms. "As a result," according to the report, "incarceration has become one of the fastest growing businesses in the USA, generating large profits for the corporations that now house more than 77,000 prison and jail inmates." Other prison services, in particular health care, have been contracted out to companies which have in turn profited at the direct expense of the health and lives of prisoners.

Deficiencies in medical treatment for prisoners include lack of screening for tuberculosis, scarcity of medical and psychiatric staff, inadequate treatment for prisoners with HIV/AIDS, lack of access for women to gynecological and obstetric care, and grossly deficient treatment for the mentally ill.

A growing number of states, having run out of space, transport prisoners to out-of-state facilities, often thousands of miles from home: "Such transferrals can cause extreme hardship, including loss of contact with family and friends, and problems in communicating with lawyers." The example is cited of women prisoners from Hawaii being transferred to a privately-run prison in Crystal City, Texas.

Cruel and inhumane treatment Conditions within US prisons put inmates at continual physical risk. According to Amnesty, "sexual violence and extortion are rife in many prisons and jails," and "rape of prisoners by other inmates is reported to be alarmingly widespread." In violation of international standards, many jails do not segregate pre-trial detainees from convicted prisoners.

The use of excessive force and cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners by prison staff is rampant. Instances cited in the report include:

* The staging of "gladiator" fights between inmates at Corcoran State Prison in California, where officials placed bets on the outcome.

* An August 1995 incident at the Graham Unit of the Arizona State prison, when 600 prisoners were forced by guards to remain outdoors, handcuffed, for 96 hours, required to defecate and urinate in their clothes. Many suffered severe sunburn, heat exhaustion and dehydration in the intense heat.

* In August 1997 in a privately-run section of Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas a video tape showed guards "kicking and beating inmates, coaxing dogs to bite prisoners and using stun guns."

Sexual abuse According to Amnesty International, sexual abuse of women prisoners by prison staff includes: "rape and other coerced sexual acts; staff routinely subjecting inmates to sexually offensive language; staff deliberately touching intimate parts of inmates' bodies during searches; and staff watching inmates who are undressed." Rape of prisoners is a form of torture which is a violation of international human rights standards, such as the Convention against Torture. According to the report, one of the main reasons these sexual assaults continue is that the victims are afraid to complain, fearing retaliation.

Rape of male inmates by other prisoners is widespread, due in large part to overcrowding, and the confining of prisoners with no regard to their backgrounds. A 1994 survey of Nebraska prisoners found 10 percent of males reporting being "pressured or forced to have sexual contact" with other prisoners. In some cases, prison officials place inmates together with the knowledge that these abuses will most likely occur.

Widespread use of restraints As is the case in US police departments, abusive use of restraints in US prisons and jails is widespread. According to Amnesty International: "The cruel use of restraints, resulting in unnecessary pain, injury or even death, is widespread in US prisons and jails. Mentally disturbed prisoners have been bound, spread-eagled, on boards for prolonged periods in four-point restraints without proper authorization of supervision. Restraints are deliberately imposed as punishment, or used as a routine control measure rather than as an emergency response."

The use of chains and leg-irons is not barred by US law, and they are often used to shackle prisoners during transportation. Pregnant women are often held in some type of restraint when transported to the hospital to give birth. A court in Washington, DC heard evidence of a women who was placed in handcuffs and leg shackles immediately after delivering her child and before delivery of the afterbirth.

Use of steel-framed restraint chairs has resulted in some of the most severe abuses of prisoners and in intake areas of jails. The prisoner is immobilized by four-point restraints which secure the arms, legs, shoulders and chest. Incidents of abuse by this method have included the following incidents.

* In March 1997 prisoner Michael Valent in Utah State Prison died from a blood clot after being held in a restraint chair for 16 hours: "His feet were secured with metal shackles and the seat had a hole to allow him to defecate and urinate without moving."

* Scott Norberg asphyiated in June 1996 at the Madison Street Jail in Maricopa County, Arizona after being placed in a restraint chair with a towel wrapped over his face.

The report cites an horrific incident at the Utah State Prison related to the abuse of restraints: "An inmate with a history of self-mutilation was shackled to a steel board on a cell floor in four-point metal restraints for 12 weeks in 1995. He was removed from the board on average four times a week to shower. At other times he was left to defecate while lying on the board. He was released from the board only following a court order."

Chemical sprays and electro-shock devices Prison officials have abused prisoners with gas and chemical sprays, including mace, tear-gar and pepper (OC) spray. In one incident at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in May 1997 guards dropped 20 canisters of tear-gas into prisoners' cell blocks following a nonviolent protest. "Soon afterwards, some were allegedly sprayed directly in the face with mace as a punishment while handcuffed."

Many US prisons and jails allow the use of electro-shock weapons, including stun belts, stun shields and stun guns. The report cites one particularly abusive incident: "In 1996 in Muncy Prison, Pennsylvania, staff used an 'Electronic Body Immobilizer Device' to subdue a woman prisoner who was in great distress after a warrant for her execution had been read." At an Arizona jail a stun gun was reportedly used to wake up a prisoner.


According to Amnesty International: "There is a widespread and persistent problem of 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 report describes a situation in which police departments and their officers regularly abuse the rights of citizens, particularly in large urban areas. Ethnic and racial minorities--particularly young black and Hispanic males--are most frequently targeted, while the majority of police departments remain predominantly white.

The report cites a pattern of abuse in some of the country's largest police departments, including: New York City; Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta.

Those guidelines which do exist to protect the public are systematically violated, with police using levels of violence bearing no relation to the alleged threats they face. Some of the instances of brutality cited by Amnesty International include:

* shooting of unarmed suspects fleeing from minor crime scenes;

* instances when suspects held in custody are fired upon after already being apprehended or restrained;

* car chases where vehicles are fired upon when drivers and occupants are unarmed;

* unprovoked and unwarranted shootings during police stakeouts;

* torture and ill-treatment inside police stations;

* deaths while in police custody following dangerous restraint procedures, including the "hogtie," where the ankles are bound from behind to the wrists.

Excessive force has been used against mentally ill or disturbed people, who are engaged in nonthreatening behavior. In Fairfield, California in June 1996, James Parkinson, an unarmed, mentally ill man running naked around a swimming pool, died following being sprayed by police with pepper spray, hit with a taser gun and shackled face-down.

In many instances bystanders are the victims of police violence. In a 1996 report on the New York Police Department, Amnesty International cited cases where individuals had been assaulted for taking photographs at a crime scene or verbally criticizing police.

"Less-than-lethal" weapons More than 60 people in the US have reportedly died in police custody where exposure to Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper) spray may have been a contributing factor. At least 3,000 police departments authorize the use of OC spray, an inflammatory agent derived from cayenne peppers. "OC spray inflames the mucous membranes, causing closing of the eyes, coughing, gagging, shortness of breath and an acute burning sensation on the skin and inside the nose and mouth," according to Amnesty. In a well-publicized incident, sheriff's deputies applied OC spray into the eyes of nonresistant anti-logging demonstrators in Humbolt County, California in October 1997.

While stun guns have been banned for use by law enforcement agencies in Canada and most of Western Europe, their use is authorized in many US police departments. The report describes the use of this weapon: "The stun gun is a hand-held device with two metal prongs that emit an electric shock. The taser is a hand-held device which shoots two barbed hooks into the subject's clothing from a distance; the current is transmitted through wires. In both cases a high voltage "jolt", typically 50,000 volts, incapacitates the suspect." Two people died in Pomona, California in 1996 after being shot with tasers by police.

Pattern of racial discrimination The report maintains: "Members of racial minorities bear the brunt of police brutality and excessive force in many parts of the USA.... Reported abuses include racist language, harassment, ill-treatment, unjustified stops and searches, unjustified shootings and false arrests.... The problems are not confined to inner cities."

Black motorists are far more likely than whites to be stopped and searched without cause, and a significant number suffer injury at the hands of the police. In suburban Pittsburgh in 1995 black businessman Johnny Gammage died of suffocation while being detained by police officers after having been stopped for a traffic violation. This practice has become so well known that it is commonly referred to as the "crime" of "driving while black."

William J. Whitfield 3rd, a black man living in New York City, was shot dead in a supermarket by police who claimed they mistook his keys for a gun. A deputy US Marshal shot and wounded 17-year-old Andre Burgess as he walked past an unmarked police car. The agent said he thought Burgess's candy bar was a weapon.

Young people, particularly minority youth, are seen by police as criminals because of the way they dress, because they frequent certain areas, or simply because of the color of their skin. An anti-loitering law introduced in Chicago in 1992 has resulted in the arrest of 41,000 youth, according to the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union.

Also the target of police violence are Hispanics living along the US-Mexican border, in particular in California and Texas. Native American people, both in cities and on reservations, have complained of police brutality as well as failure of authorities to respond to and prosecute crimes committed against Native Americans on reservations.

Gay men and lesbians report instances of harassment and brutality by police officers. They recount as well that reports of crimes against them are met in some instances with verbal or physical abuse by police.

A system that protects the abusers Police officers and departments guilty of acts of brutality in most cases go unprosecuted and unpunished. Arrests and convictions of police officers for excessive force are extremely rare. While many cities pay out large sums to settle civil lawsuits, police departments and individual officers are rarely held accountable.

When officers are prosecuted, often it is the word of the victim against the accused, and sufficient evidence cannot be obtained unless other police officers come forward to testify.

A "code of silence" operates in many in police departments, in which officers fail to report instances of brutality, or cover them up. The case of Abner Louima illustrates this phenomenon. The Haitian immigrant suffered serious internal injuries after New York police officers beat him, with one ramming the handle of a toilet plunger into his rectum. The report states: "Out of nearly 100 officers interviewed during a federal investigation into the torture of Abner Louima (most of whom had been granted immunity from prosecution in return for giving evidence), only two reportedly provided investigators with information."

Other barriers to prosecution of offending police officers include statutes of limitations on police disciplinary actions and secrecy surrounding police internal investigations.
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Old 07-23-2005, 03:54 PM
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The Amnesty International report opens with the passage: "The USA was founded in the name of democracy, political and legal equality, and individual freedom. However, despite its claims to international leadership in the field of human rights, and its many institutions to protect individual civil liberties, the USA is failing to deliver the fundamental promise of rights for all."

Amnesty International presents a well-documented, convincing case to back up this statement. The tragic death of Anthony Baez in New York City in December 1994 is cited. Baez was murdered by police while he and he brothers played street football in the Bronx. After their football accidentally hit a patrol car, police officer Francis X. Livoti seized Baez and held him by the neck, while other cops knelt on his back as he lay face down on the pavement. He died of suffocation as a result of the chokehold.

The City of New York recently agreed to a $3 million settlement in a wrongful death suit filed by Baez's family. But while the settlement is a record dollar amount, the city has admitted no guilt in the incident, claiming that Livoti was an out-of-control cop. However, this police officer had at least nine previous complaints of brutality against him. Livoti was acquitted on manslaughter charges in a nonjury trial in New York State Supreme Court in 1996, but earlier this year was convicted on federal charges of violating Baez's civil rights.

This case is not an isolated one, according to Amnesty International: "The US Justice Department receives thousands of complaints of police abuse each year, which many regard as but the tip of the iceberg." Prison guards, immigration officials as well as police officers and departments are engaged in widespread abuse of human rights. However, these abuses are not simply the result of individual misconduct. In large urban police departments authorities turn a blind eye to them. While local authorities pay out millions of dollars a year in compensation to victims of violence, wrongdoing is rarely admitted and prosecution of the individual officers is rarely successful.

Some 1.7 million people are imprisoned in the US today, and these prisoners are the victims of some of the cruelest abuse. Many are the target of violence by guards, held in overcrowded conditions, isolated for long periods of time, and restrained by degrading and often life-threatening methods. The report says: "Victims include pregnant women, the mentally ill and even children. The weakness of independent scrutiny, together with a public mood demanding harsher treatment of offenders, have created a climate in which such human rights violations can occur."

Treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers is particularly harsh: "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."

Three thousand three hundred people presently sit on death row across the US, and more than 350 have been executed since 1990. The treatment of immigrants and the US use of the death penalty--including its application to juvenile offenders--are the subject of subsequent chapters of the report, which will be dealt with in future WSWS installments.

Inequality, racism and discrimination The Amnesty report points to the extreme disparity of wealth and opportunity existing in the United States as a major factor leading to the disregard for human rights. Millions are denied adequate education and health care. Nine percent of the country's children live in extreme poverty. Alcoholism and drug addition are pervasive. Minorities and the poor regularly receive inadequate legal counsel.

The report documents the prevalence of racism and its outcome reflected in the lives of minorities. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young blacks. The report comments: "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." Segregation of black and Hispanic children in inner-city schools is commonplace.

Despite laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender, women suffer continual discrimination and violence. Women face abuse at the hands of police and prison officials, and victims of rape and domestic violence often get little support from the police and judicial system in prosecuting their offenders.

Homosexuals can be legally fired from their jobs in 39 states because of their sexual orientation. "Reports of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and HIV-positive people have increased," says Amnesty. The recent savage murder of Matthew Shepard, a 22-year-old gay University of Wyoming student, is evidence of the escalation of this violence.

Particular incidents of those targeted by the American legal system for their political beliefs include:

* Thirty military personnel imprisoned in 1991-92 for their conscientious objection to the Persian Gulf war;

* The imprisonment of Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), a former leader of the Black Panther Party who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1972 in Los Angeles. He was released on bail in 1997. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into his case on the grounds that he may have been denied a fair trial because of his political beliefs.

* The two life sentences given to Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, who was convicted in 1977 for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975. Amnesty International believes that he was not given a fair trial on political grounds.

The denial of civil rights The report continues: "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 'non-persons', 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."

Many sections of the population have conducted struggles to defend their civil rights throughout the twentieth century. Violations of these rights have included arrests and killings of trade unionists, the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, "Red Scares" following both World Wars, and school and other forms of legalized segregation. Many people lost their lives in the struggle against these abuses of civil and human rights.

Despite this history, however, according to Amnesty International, "surveys suggest that today many in the USA are unfamiliar with the rights they possess, and do not appreciate that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are there to protect everyone in the USA from abuse of power by the government. There is often popular support for restricting or ignoring certain provisions in the Bill of Rights. Recent initiatives by the Congress (such as habeas corpus reform and the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996), impede the ability of federal courts to intervene when rights are violated."

International standards The report cites the five international human rights treaties that have been ratified by the US. These include: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and two treaties defining the status and rights of refugees. Subsequent chapters of the report document the systematic violation of the provisions of these treaties in the US.
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