Abuses in America

Print edition : October 24, 1998

Amnesty International's report on human rights violations in the United States highlights the unequal, tension-ridden nature of American society.

THE United States is a hegemonic power which champions human rights selectively when that suits its interests abroad. But internally, it has a reasonable record on human rights and freedoms. Right? Wrong.

Amnesty International (A.I.) is a Western-dominated organisation which is happy to condemn Third World states for human rights violations but never takes a stand on human rights abuses in the West. Right? Wrong again.

Any unconvinced reader would do well to read Amnesty's just-released report, "Rights for All". This is one of the most disturbing pieces of documentation on human rights violations in any country that A.I. has published. It raises serious questions not just about the authenticity of the professed human rights concerns of the U.S., but about the nature of American society, its police, prison and justice systems, the ethics of extreme forms of punishment, and deep and growing insecurities, symbolised above all by the existence of 200 million guns, or four firearms for every five citizens.

First, a few basic facts. America is deeply contradictory in many ways. Its Constitution guarantees extended individual rights to its citizens. But for more than a century, these rights were denied to whole communities. Racial segregation was abolished legally only in the 1960s.

* The U.S. has the most powerful economy in the world, but racially it is an extremely divided society, beset with disparities of wealth and income. Black people are three times more likely to be unemployed than whites with equivalent qualifications. Murder is the leading cause of death among black youth. There are more blacks in U.S. prisons than in universities.

* There are a number of U.S. laws against gender discrimination. But women in the U.S. earn 30 per cent less than men of equal competence. Violence against gays and lesbians has increased in recent years. In 39 of the U.S.' 50 States, gays and lesbians can be dismissed from their jobs on the grounds of their sexual orientation. The U.S. was built by migrants and refugees, but it today treats asylum seekers like criminals.

* As for Amnesty, it has monitored human rights in the U.S. since the early 1960s and produced its first report on the U.S. in 1965: "Justice in American South". Since then, it has produced hundreds of documents on human rights. In the 1990s alone, it has published 32 different reports. A.I. has also investigated the human rights situation in other Western countries. The present report on the U.S., the most comprehensive so far, deals with six different forms of human rights abuse: police brutality and torture, treatment of prisoners, the death penalty, the inconsistent U.S. record on international human rights, treatment of asylum seekers, and arms-related violations.

One merit of the report is that it does not merely describe specific incidents of abuse, but looks for a systemic pattern behind them. For instance, it is able to make connections between ethnicity, race and police harassment. It does not merely detail police brutality, but shows how routine abuses are ignored by the authorities, hiding behind "a code of silence". While the report does not deal specifically with America's social and economic disparities, it does locate them as the backdrop against which social insecurity and crime grow. It is sharply critical of the tendency to respond to growing crime by imposing harsher and harsher punishment, including mandatory minimum sentences, prosecution of juveniles, and removal of parole options.

The number of people in U.S. prisons and jails tripled between 1980 and 1996 to more than 1.7 million. The number of women in prison has quadrupled. Another 3.8 million people are on probation or parole. Today, 23 per cent of all black males in the U.S. between 20 and 29 years of age are in prison, or on probation or parole - perhaps the highest such proportion anywhere.

Some specific instances of abuse are noteworthy. Take police brutality. The Rodney King episode of 1991 was only one, relatively mild, instance of the harsh methods used by a racially prejudiced police. Last December, a black man was shot dead in a New York supermarket by the police, who said that they mistook the keys he carried for a gun. The officer who fired was involved in eight prior shootings. A.I. has documented 30 such cases involving the New York police. "Nearly all the victims were black, Latino or from other minorities - a pattern seen across the country." For instance, "in July 1996, a 29-year-old woman, Kimberly Lashon Watkins, died in Pomona, California, after being shot by police with a taser - a hand-held device which shoots two barbed hooks attached to wires into the victim through which a high voltage current is transmitted."

In the U.S., the police routinely use supposedly non-lethal weapons to stun or disable temporarily suspects, often inflicting serious injuries or even causing death. At least 3,000 police departments authorise the use of the Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray. Although the spray has been promoted as a safer and more effective alternative to chemical mace or impact weapons, there is mounting concern about its health risks. Since the early 1990s, more than 60 people have died in police custody after being exposed to OC spray. "OC spray has sometimes been applied in a deliberately cruel manner to suspects who are already restrained. In October 1997, Sheriff's deputies in Humbolt County, California, swabbed liquid OC spray directly into the eyes of non-violent anti-logging demonstrators."

There are brutal and inhuman procedures such as hogtying - tying suspects' ankles to their wrists behind their backs. Deaths in custody resulting from hogtying have been reported from various parts of the country, including Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Again, electro-shock weapons, which give a jolt of 50,000 volts to victims, are used in a number of States.

A.I. has detailed cases from different cities where the police beat and rob suspects, plant drugs or falsify reports. Torture in police custody is far from rare. For instance, a Haitian immigrant "suffered serious internal injuries after New York police officers allegedly beat him and one rammed the handle of a toilet plunger into his rectum at a Brooklyn police station in August 1997." One shocking fact about police brutality is that many instances are not nationally recorded. There are no fewer than 17,000 different police agencies in the U.S. with very little coordination among them. Most internal police investigations are conducted in secrecy, the process undermining public confidence. The demand for independent monitoring has grown. In June 1998, there were 94 independent monitoring bodies, up from just 13 in 1980. But the situation is not satisfactory.

THE state of U.S. prisons and jails is hair-raising. Sixty per cent of prisoners are from racial and ethnic minorities. Although blacks are only 12 per cent of America's population, they account for half its prisoners. The number of women in U.S. jails has increased twelve-fold since 1970. The treatment of prisoners has been described in a typical case as "a pattern of needless and officially sanctioned brutality." The report says: "Physical and sexual violence and extortion are rife in many prisons and jails... Violence between prisoners is aggravated by confining inmates together who should be separated... Rape of prisoners by other inmates is reported to be alarmingly widespread. In a 1994 survey of prisoners in Nebraska, more than 10 per cent of male prisoners reported being 'pressured or forced to have sexual contact' with other inmates."

In California, guards have staged "gladiator" fights between inmates. Between 1988 and 1994, seven prisoners were shot dead and dozens of others wounded when armed guards fired on them. Equally terrifying is sexual abuse. "In 1997 the Justice Department sued the States of Michigan and Arizona, alleging that they were failing to protect women from sexual misconduct, including sexual assaults and 'prurient viewing during dressing, showering and use of toilet facilities'. In 1998, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to pay three women $500,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the women claimed that they had been beaten, raped and sold by guards for sex with male inmates at a federal correctional facility in California."

According to the report, "a special case here is... supermaximum security units. 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. 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 (recommended minimum) 80 square feet... 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."

Privatisation of jails has aggravated matters. "In order to cut costs, States have increasingly contracted out to private firms the management of facilities... As a result, 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.... inmates. Many experts believe that the involvement of private companies increases the likelihood of inmates being abused and subjected to poor conditions."

THE death penalty is a terrible obsession with the retribution-oriented U.S. justice system. More than 350 people have been executed since 1990. More than 3,300 others are on death row. "International standards seek to restrict the scope of the death penalty. They forbid its use against children; see it as an unacceptable punishment for the mentally impaired; and demand the highest legal safeguards for capital trials. On all these counts, the USA is failing. More than 100 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The USA by contrast has increased its rate of executions and the number of crimes punishable by death. Thirty-eight States currently have the death penalty on their statute books... In 24 U.S. States people can be sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were children. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was not unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded people. Since then some 30 mentally impaired people have been executed."

"The death penalty," says the A.I. report, has "become a political campaigning tool in the USA. Politicians who speak against it are attacked as 'soft on crime' by their opponents. Others compete over the strength of their support for it. In late 1994 the District Attorney of Oklahoma City campaigned for re-election on his record of having 'sent 44 murderers to death row'."

Black and white people are the victims of violent crime in roughly equal numbers. Yet 82 per cent of people executed since 1977 have been convicted of killing white victims. Blacks make up just 12 per cent of the U.S. population, but 42 per cent of those on the nation's death rows. "The judicial system which tried and sentenced them remains overwhelmingly white. In 1998, in those States which have capital punishment, there were 1,838 officials.... responsible for deciding whether or not to seek the death penalty in individual cases. Of these officials, 1,794 were white," says the report.

The death penalty is a cruel form of punishment, which typically follows years of incarceration in harsh conditions. In the U.S., it is usually carried out by lethal injection. But this is not a painless, clinical process as is sometimes claimed. "Tommy Smith was executed in Indiana in 1996. The execution team searched for 16 minutes for a vein in his arm before calling a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to insert a needle into his neck. After 36 minutes the poison was finally injected through a vein in his foot. Tommy Smith was fully conscious throughout."

The U.S.' record in exporting lethal arms, even torture devices, is appalling. "The U.S. dominates the post-Cold War global market for arms and security equipment. From 1989 to 1996 the USA sold more than $117 billion of arms, about 45 per cent of the global total. Sales are often supported by official financial assistance, military training and logistical support programmes. Successive U.S. governments have authorised exports to recipients with a record of human rights abuse, and have failed to publish comprehensive and timely information on the export of U.S. small arms and law enforcement equipment - the most common tools of human rights abuse."

Equally reprehensible is the training of military officers from other countries with a known record of human rights abuse. More than 100,000 military personnel from over 100 countries have received training under the International Military and Education Training (IMET) programme since 1976. Even more are trained under the Foreign Military Sales programmes. Among the biggest beneficiaries of IMET - for which, incidentally, the Indian Government has also been negotiating with the U.S. - are Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda.

"RIGHTS for All" is brutally, wrenchingly frank. It shows how discrimination and cruel treatment have got entrenched in the American system. It also makes a range of constructive suggestions to rectify the situation and calls upon the U.S. Government to institute reforms, from signing international covenants (for instance, the Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) to changing the prison system, altering asylum procedures, improving police recruitment. One does feel, though, that A.I. would have been even more effective had it pursued a broad agenda beyond civil liberties and political rights to include social and economic rights and their terrible violations in the deeply skewed, unequal society that is the U.S. Regrettably, Amnesty's mandate, though it has been recently expanded, is a limited one.

Amnesty is open to other criticism too. For instance, says Javid Laiq, a senior journalist who worked in its research department in London for seven years: "It is unfortunate that until now, the North America desk of A.I. spent a lot of its energies on the death penalty, neglecting police torture and brutality." Laiq feels that Amnesty should not "depend too much on lobbying Western governments and financial institutions dominated by Western governments."

However, this is a far cry from saying that A.I. is the pro-Western, anti-Third World, anti-Indian organisation it has been made out to be by some who have their own agenda to push, especially in defending police excesses in Indian states and human rights abuses in Kashmir. They will do well to read this report with sincerity and attention.

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