The American Prisoner and the International Human Rights Day Dilemma

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Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) will call attention to International Human Rights Day, by sending cards to hundreds of prisoners at the Adult Correctional Institutions and around the country.  On Thursday, December 2nd, the Behind the Walls Prison Committee will meet at DARE, 340 Lockwood St., Providence, RI to personalize and address the cards.  They are being timed to arrive in the cellblocks on December 10th, Human Rights Day.

December 10, 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a full century after another civil rights declaration was made in Seneca Falls regarding women’s rights in America.  Forty-eight nations adopted UDHR, while eight abstained (6 defunct Soviet nations, apartheid South Africa, and Saudi Arabia).  If it were to be considered a “Treaty,” it would be considered the “supreme law of the land” due to provisions of the United States Constitution.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two of the organizations to have truly seized on the UDHR as a moral high ground, particularly as relates to political prisoners.  This pertains to (primarily) political dissidents around the globe.  It might be surprising as to how much campaign work they do in America, as they did for Troy Davis, who sits on Georgia’s Death Row even though no physical evidence connects him to the crime and the only major witness not to recant has been accused as the actual killer.  Davis’ appeal was denied around the same time as stories insinuating two innocent men have been put to death in Texas.  Amnesty International is conducting a “Write for Rights” campaign, December 4-12.

The United States is ground zero for repressive penal policies.  Founded in part as a penal colony, the first prisons were for runaway slaves and servants.  Being the last Western nation to abolish institutional slavery, America continues to utilize prison labor as an exemption from slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment.  America, while projecting “Freedom” through global media and government funded operations (including the Peace Corps and the military), simultaneously leads the world in prisons, prisoners, prison guards, and money spent to imprison Americans.  It has gotten so repressive and misaligned with global norms, a conservative Congress has been forced to pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.  The House acted quicker than the Senate, where the issue was originated by Senator Jim Webb (VA), and has 39 co-sponsors, including Rhode Island’s former top federal law enforcement officer, Sheldon Whitehouse.

American prisons are where one can find the first human rights struggle dominated by “guilty” people.  Among the 2.3 million prisoners there are thousands of people motivated by conscientious objection to the laws and policies of our government, which (in other countries) we would label “political prisoners.”  Some have websites and resources in support, and have been affiliated with known political groups and causes over the past half century.  Some are likely to have been framed for crimes due to their political activity, such as Leonard Peltier or Mumia Abu Jamal.  But most are entirely anonymous, wearing khaki or gray or orange- whatever suits the local penitentiary.

The Innocence Project has famously taken on a very narrow portion of innocent people among the 2.3 million: DNA evidence in capital cases.  This fails to cover the vast majority of cases that hinge upon the testimony of one person- often a drug addicted and/or paid informant for the authorities.  Conservative estimates range from 1-10% of American prisons are filled with innocent people, or 23,000 to 230,000 people.

The most commonly defied laws in America are the drug prohibitions which bar the individual liberty to ingest certain plant products and derivatives.  This includes the outlawing of naturally growing plants.  Such laws fly in the face of many liberals, conservatives, libertarians, herbalists, and a host of ideologies.  These laws are flaunted by close to half of the American population, in one form or another (including, by admission, the past three presidents of the United States).  Such mass defiance can only be viewed as political opposition, rather than isolated criminal activity, and such laws should be reviewed.  4.5 million registered voters in California urged the legalization and regulation of marijuana last month, in perhaps the largest political protest of criminal justice policy in history.

With four times more mentally ill people in prison than in mental hospitals, it is clear that there is a lack of health-based modes of treatment, particularly for the poor and working class- and we have relegated mental illness, and the “acting out” that accompanies lack of treatment, into a crime.  We have set aside resources to hide this ailment in our prisons, along with addiction.

Immigration Detention policy has developed a for-profit gulag maintained in the shadows of human rights by corporations traded on Wall Street. Corrections Corporation of America, Halliburton, and others have earned billions from the taxpayers based on the myths about immigrants being inherently evil.  New laws like Arizona’s SB1070 only further the federal norm, where people without pristine documentation of themselves will spend an average of one year in the gulag before being deported or released.  Those who make a claim of human rights abuse, while in the gulag, merely get deported prior to the hearing.  Residents of Rhode Island can recall the tampering of evidence regarding Luis Mendonca, victim of a videotaped police beating.  Some in authority wanted Mendonca badly deported, even though he was not eligible to be cast away.  Instead he sat in the gulag for six months.

When something is so blatant and calculated, one must entertain the possibility that it is working precisely how it was designed… regardless of the criticism.  Prison sentences have tripled in length, across the board, in the past few decades.  Each year there are new crimes, while hardly ever is there a repeal.  The result is more prison construction, an entirely state-subsidized industry, and a rising percentage of people in prison.  One could argue this is a good thing, having nothing to do with crime and safety, and I believe such proponents are fearful of making their case.  So they lie.  They make it about “public safety.”

The amount of jobs available in America has been a shrinking percentage of the population since the 1970s.  As wages have decreased, so have the opportunities.  One way to obfuscate the truth is to talk about “Unemployment” rates.  This merely measures the amount of people who are officially seeking work, rather than taking into account all the people who do not have jobs.  The prison population reduces Unemployment numbers by a full 1% alone.  Consider next that almost another 1% has been released from prison within the past year, and is more likely to be working Off the Books than standing in the Unemployment Line.  As our Third World economy rises in this country, far fewer will be eligible for unemployment benefits or any other form of social safety net.  Meanwhile, the enforcement of this underclass is a booming a largesse of paramilitaries; no different than the Crackers and slave catchers of yesteryear.

On International Human Rights Day, prison activists all over the world will re-commit to the efforts to stop the use of humans as an industry, and some prisoners will be able to share with others the fact that they are still human, still loved, and not forgotten.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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1 Response to The American Prisoner and the International Human Rights Day Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Unprison 2011-2013 Index | unprison

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