In Bad Company 12/01

How US criminal “justice” stacks up with the rest of the world


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.


Prison Population


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.


Death Penalty


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 States.

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.


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.


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.


Prison Conditions


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 a part of the solution. In fact, the world’s most vocal defender of human rights once again falls in the same category as China and the other usual suspects.

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 torture.


At about the same time, Amnesty International (AI) publicly criticized the US for its use of super-maximum 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, it’s a safe bet that the foot-dragging will continue.


Prison Labor


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 super max facility. Is there a term other than “slave labor” to describe this arrangement?


Female Prisoners


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 abused 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 community.

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.