Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

10 Shameful Ways America Abuses Its Own Citizens

Land of the free? More like home of the exploited.

Recently, Human Rights Watch released its World Report evaluating each country’s human rights practices around the globe. The United States fared poorly in safeguarding the rights of its own population, with those hit hardest by abuse typically the most vulnerable in the society, including racial and ethnic groups, minorities, the poor, immigrants, prisoners and the elderly. Here are 10 key areas identified by HRW where the United States fell short in upholding and preserving human rights.

1. Harsh sentencing. The United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population in the world with 760 inmates per 100,000 residents and an estimated 2.2 million people behind bars. Our country holds about five percent of the world’s population, yet houses around 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration in the United States is the result of decades of punitive sentencing regimes, including life-without-parole sentences, high mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, with nearly half of current federal inmates serving time for drug-related crimes.

While Attorney General Eric Holder has urged for changes in federal sentencing guidelines to reserve the harshest penalties for the most serious drug traffickers, low-level and nonviolent drug offenders still remain subject to disproportionately long sentences and are often left with no choice but to accept plea bargains from prosecutors or face arbitrarily fixed minimum sentences.

While the number of death sentences in the United States per year has fallen, 32 states still impose the death penalty, despite the fact that its usage has been found to be contrary to international law. Last year alone, 42 people were executed and 10 people have been executed as of March this year. 

2. Abysmal prison conditions. Prison conditions continue to be typified by overcrowding, rampant physical abuse, prison rape, barely edible food, unsanitary conditions and inadequate access to medical and mental healthcare facilities for inmates. Likewise, lengthy sentences have resulted in a growing number of elderly incarcerated people posing serious health challenges to correctional authorities ill-equipped to handle the aging prison population. Over 26,000 persons aged 65 and older were incarcerated in state and federal prisons in 2011, representing a 62 percent increase over five years.

Last year, 30,000 inmates of a California state prison went on a hunger strike to rally against inhumane conditions and the use of solitary confinement in jails. Still, prisoners continue to be held in the Special Housing Unit, or the SHU, often for weeks or months on end. Prolonged solitary confinement amounts to “ cruel punishment or torture” under international law and is scientifically proven to cause serious mental and physical suffering.

3. Youth detention. In nearly all jurisdictions in the United States, youth offenders are tried in adult courts and sentenced to serve time in adult jails. It is estimated that more than 95,000 youths under 18 were held in adult prisons in 2011 where they are subject to solitary confinement. In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders convicted of homicide, calling into question almost 85 percent of all juvenile cases in the country, according to HRW. 

In a positive move, California enacted a law in September providing for the possibility of review for about 5,000 young people sentenced to life in prison. However, many states have yet to comply with recent Supreme Court decisions, which means life-without-parole sentences for youth homicide crimes are still executed. More alarming, HRW found that nearly every youth offender serving life-without-parole reported physical violence or sexual abuse by inmates or corrections officers.

4. Poverty and justice. The link between poverty and criminal justice remains apparent with the majority of poor defendants suffering in pretrial detention because they are simply too poor to post bail or pay the high court fees and surcharges. According to HRW, 60 percent of jail inmates are confined pending trial because they lack financial resources to secure release, which costs this country approximately $9 billion a year.