Civil Rights Violations are Nothing New

Human Rights

Last week, the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights reported that it had documented 34 "credible" civil rights complaints arising under the implementation of the USA Patriot Act. Only 34?

By definition, a "civil rights" violation usually means that a law enforcement officer, acting as agent of local, state, or federal government, deprived someone of life, liberty, or property without regard for the law or due process. The violation often involves an unlawful search of one's person or a wrongful seizure of property.

The report found that jail guards in New York beat several immigrants detained after 9/11. Most would say that this is a civil rights violation. And that is what the Justice Department found, as well.

The major media outlets covered the story of the report, and people everywhere were expressing their dismay. But I could not get excited about the report.

Why? Because brutal treatment of prisoners in America is a fact of prison life. One that is little covered and, when it is, is justified as being the product of an animal-like environment in which the strong prey upon the weak and guards abuse for self-protection. Our Supreme Court has pretty much decided that any kind of prison torture squares with the Constitution. Justices Scalia and Thomas have gone on record as saying that there is really no such thing as the cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. They and some of their colleagues argue that the Constitution does not address what is "too much" punishment and that proportionality--let the punishment fit the crime--is not what the Amendment is about. If the electric chair is not cruel and unusual then what is?

The Justice report also substantiated a claim by a federal prison inmate who said he was told by a prison doctor, ''If I was in charge, I would execute every one of you ... because of the crimes you all did.'' Not a nice thing to say, to be sure, but how many times a day in American's prison population do you think a prisoner is verbally abused or harassed? Yet, there is not a or court in this country that would rule that the prisoner's "rights" had been violated. Verbal abuse is an accepted fact of prison life in America.

At the end of 2002, there were 2,166,260 Americans in local jails, state and federal prisons and juvenile detention facilities, 2.6 percent higher than the year 2001. Less than a third of them are perpetrators of violence. Most are small-time drug users and dealers or people who steal and commit fraud in order to support their habits. Many are victims of draconian three-strikes laws, which the Supreme Court validated last year when it said it was just fine that a man would spend 25 years in prison for stealing videotapes. Why isn't such a sentence a violation of civil rights under the Constitution?

Prisoners have their civil rights violated when they lose their right to vote. Their civil rights are violated when the stigma of prisonization will keep most from ever getting decent jobs, which means they will have a darn hard time trying to beat the better than 60% odds that they will go back to prison for breaking some law or another, or violating some rule of their release.

As sorry as I am for the experiences of the 9/11 detainees, I find it ironic that the Justice Department pretends to care about their beatings, while turning a blind eye to the systematic deprivation and violation of the civil rights of tens of thousands of men and women in American prisons.

What accounts for this anomaly? Could it be that Ashcroft and DOJ feign concern in order to help sell what they say needs to be an even "stronger and better" Patriot Act?

Ashcroft has been trying to improve the image of the Patriot Act as a set-up to asking Congress for even more powers. Powers that will lead to more civil rights violations. Come to think of it, the Patriot Act is, itself, a 275-page or so manifesto on how to violate civil rights.

Only 34 validated civil rights complaints under the Patriot Act? I would have thought it would be in the thousands. For a good argument could be made that the Patriot Act itself is a 275-page or thereabouts manifesto, a "how-to" violate the civil rights of each and every one of us.

Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teaches law and psychology, and writes Civil Liberties Watch.

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