Prison system in the U.S. infringes principle of Human Rights For All

SWEDHR Research & Report. Vol 1., No 8

By Dr. Leif Elinder, SWEDHR

”If you can’t eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it”– Ali Shariati

Imagine a small windowless concrete room in which you can reach the opposite wall with extended arms – a room only as big as a closet, containing a bed and a simple toilet. In one wall there is a steel door with a small flap that is opened three times a day to pass a container of foul smelling food through it. Perhaps, on occasion, you get to exchange a couple of words with the guard. This is the only human contact you have that day. Your only opportunity for physical activity is for one hour, on five of the seven days in the week and this occurs in an adjacent roofless solitary cell, no bigger than the one from which you have come. If you look upwards you might catch a glimpse of the sky. That is all. 

Spokepersons for the UN council for human rights state that this type of imprisonment and isolation equates to torture. Many prisoners develop mental health issues, cry in desperation for long periods day and night. Some self mutilate, several attempt suicide, some succeed.

In February 2013, the independent american brodcasting news agency “Democracy Now” reported from the New York premiere of the documentary “Long Distance Revolutionary”. This documentary was about Mumia Abu-Jamal, perhaps one of the US’s most well known prisoners. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death in 1982 after having been accused of killing a policeman. He consistently claimed his innocence. After having spent 29 years in isolation on “death row”, the Court of Appeal – not overruling the original murder verdict – agreed to overturn the death penalty. Abu-Jamal will no longer be confined to isolation but rather be permitted, during daylight, to communicate with other prisoners. The death penalty has become a life sentence.

 From Photo Essay: Inside Guantanamo

Prisoners kept in Guantanamo

In 2012 “Democracy Now” informed the public about a native american indian activist Leonard Peltier. Peltier was convicted of having shot two FBI agents during a gun fight at a Dakota Indian reserve, in 1975. He was then been locked up for 40 years. Like Abu-Jamal, he has persistenly denied the crime. Human rights groups and people like Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Peter Seger and Harry Belafonte have expressed their support for Peltier. Amnesty International regard him as a Prisoner of Conscience, who has been denied an unbiased and fair trial.

A third life-time prisoner, Anthony Graves, describes how he was wrongly convicted for murder and sentenced to death in Texas, 1992. Like all convicts sentenced to death, he too was locked up in isolation. For Graves, this meant no inter-prisoner contact for over ten years. After 18 years of incarceration, the authorities concluded that he was innocent and Graves was freed in 2010. In a rare Senate hearing in 2012, Graves shared his experiences describing the terrible conditions the prisoners suffer when confined for years, or decades, in isolation. It is reported that in the US, at any given moment, there are about 80 000 prisoners locked up in this way, often for years or decades. Two elderly afro-americans (Herman Wallace aged 72 and Albert Woodfox aged 67) have been locked up in this kind of isolation for more than 40 years at the notorious “Angola” prison in Louisiana.

Chelsea (Bradley) Manning – the young US military recruit, who was seized in 2010 on the suspicion of having leaked information about US war crimes to Wikileaks, was locked in isolation for seven months. His case was brought to public knowledge by the now well known human rights activist, lawer and journalist Glenn Greenwald Upon Manning’s brutal treatment becoming general public knowledge, subsequent protests led to him eventually being moved to a more accessible prison with more humane conditions.

With 5% of the worlds population, the US is harbouring nearly a quarter of its prisoners. With a population of 310 million people, the US has more than 2.2 million in prison (This equates to more than 700 people per 100 000).

As a comparison to the US statistics from around the year 2010, other examples from around the globe include

  • 2nd place, Russia with 584 prisoners per 100 000
  • 10th place, South Africa with 402/100 000
  • 33rd place, Iran with 226/100 00
  • 71st place, China with 119/100 00
  • 108th place, Sweden with 75/100 000
  • 152nd place India with 29/100 000. 

It is critical to note that one of the worlds super-powers is the worst offender when it comes to keeping so many people imprisoned, and particularly abhorrent that so many prisoners are being detained under inhumane conditions.

 Prisoners inside Guantanamo.


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