Last week, the US Department of State released its human rights report for 2013, which offers up an assessment of human rights compliance and non-compliance in countries around the world. Secretary of State, John Kerry, had this to say about this year’s report:
Governments that protect human rights and are accountable to their citizens are more secure, bolster international peace and security, and enjoy shared prosperity with stable democratic countries around the world. Countries that fail to uphold human rights can face economic deprivation and international isolation. Despite that simple truth, these reports show that too many governments continue to tighten their grasp on free expression, association, and assembly, using increasingly repressive laws, politically motivated prosecutions and even new technologies to deny citizens their universal human rights, in the public square, and in virtual space.
The irony here, of course, is that our nation’s credibility is questionable at best on many of these measures. The NSA’s eavesdropping activities alone, as revealed by the Snowden leaks, have made it clear that our own government is willing to engage in legally questionable practices that have a chilling effect on free speech, freedom of expression, and the willingness of citizens to lawfully disagree with their own government. Eavesdropping, of the type that the government claims is legal and necessary, also erodes press freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution that are fundamental to the maintenance of a free and vibrant democracy.
So, even though the US struggles with many of the same issues that it judges and condemns around the world, the report makes no assessment of our own human rights challenges, including some very serious ones that occur within our correctional systems.
We lead the world in incarceration rates, and we lock up far more people than any of the 200-plus countries evaluated in the human rights report. We also hold over 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement, a practice that has been found by some researchers to be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging (PDF). Many of the individuals placed into solitary confinement suffer from mental illnesses and, according to a lawsuit against California’s Pelican Bay prison, inmates placed into such confinement in California account for half of inmate suicides, even though only 5% of the inmate population is housed in solitary.
Equally as disturbing are repeated reports from around the country of prisons that fail to provide for even the most basic safety and human dignity of the incarcerated. According to law suit filed against the East Mississippi State Correctional Facility, staff mistreated, abused, and assaulted inmates on a systematic basis over a period of years there. According to the complaint in that case, the prison is rat infested, staff are unable or unwilling to care for mentally ill inmates, they’ve turned a blind eye to rapes and aggravated assaults, and poorly trained staff routinely use excessive force against inmates in the facility.
And Mississippi is not alone in their poor treatment and abuse of some of society’s least powerful and most vulnerable individuals.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a report in January 2014 detailing an initial investigation of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama. In their report to the governor of Alabama, the DOJ announced the below findings:
For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them. Staff have raped, sodomized, fondled, and exposed themselves to prisoners. They have coerced prisoners to engage in oral sex. Staff engage in voyeurism, forcing women to disrobe and watching them while they use the shower and use the toilet. Staff sexually harass women, subjecting them to a daily barrage of sexually explicit verbal abuse.
Tutwiler staff also harm women prisoners through a constant threat of sexual violence. Because women prisoners typically experience a high incidence of sexual victimization prior to incarceration, subjecting them to a constant fear of sexual abuse and repeated sexual harassment is particularly injurious. This risk is well known to correctional leadership and staff. The toxic, sexualized environment of Tutwiler, coupled with aggressive and threatening behavior by staff, increases emotional harm inflicted on prisoners and reinforces the cycle of abuse.
Tutwiler has a toxic, sexualized environment that permits staff sexual abuse and harassment.
- Prisoners are compelled to submit to unlawful sexual advances to either obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products and laundry service, or to avoid punishment. Inconsistent application of facility rules and disciplinary sanctions causes many prisoners to believe that acceding to staff sexual abuse will engender improved treatment.
- Tutwiler staff encourage and participate in sexual activities by and among prisoners.
Prison officials have failed to curb the sexual abuse and sexual harassment despite possessing actual knowledge of the harm, including a federal statistical analysis identifying sexual misconduct at Tutwiler as occurring at one of the highest rates in the country.
Prison officials discourage prisoner reporting of sexual abuse due to actual and perceived retaliation against individuals who make allegations. For example, immediately after making allegations, Tutwiler often places women in segregation and gives them lie detector tests. In some instances, reporting the sexual abuse of one staff member results in additional abuse from other staff members.
When confronted with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, Tutwiler fails to adequately respond or investigate. For example:
- Sexual misconduct investigations are cursory and do not follow clear leads; an
- Tutwiler does not properly discipline officers for substantiated sexual abuse
Systemic deficiencies at Tutwiler directly contribute to staff and prisoner sexual abuse and staff sexual harassment that injures prisoners, and creates a substantial risk of further harm. These systemic deficiencies include:
- A lack of gender-responsive strategies in Tutwiler’s operational practices and internal policies that could address the sexual abuse and harassment at Tutwiler and remedy the sexualized environment;
- Failure to adequately collect and analyze existing data to identify potential misconduct, thus subjecting women to continued sexual abuse and harassment that could have been prevented;
- The complete absence of a grievance system, thus limiting alternative reporting options for women prisoners who fear retaliation for using the facility’s Prison Rape Elimination Act (“PREA”) hotline;
- Dangerously low staffing levels, including a dearth of female officers, thus placing women prisoners at serious risk of harm from other prisoners and staff;
- An architectural structure that is not suited for housing women offenders including a floor plan that affords little privacy to women prisoners to undress, shower, or use the toilet and numerous blind spots throughout the facility that allow sexual activity to occur undetected; and
- A classification system that does not identify or protect potential victims from abuse, thus subjecting vulnerable prisoners to sexual and physical abuse.
This didn’t happen in a prison in a third-world country or one ruled by a vindictive, sociopathic leader in some political backwater. It’s right here in the good old US of A – the country that stands on a soapbox and judges the rest of the world’s treatment of their citizens.
And, as it turns out, it’s all too easy for our society to turn a blind eye to these types of prison abuses. They happen behind high walls to people who society has marginalized due to their behavior in our communities. But, it’s important to note that what goes on in a prison does not stay confined. Traumatized inmates are less likely to engage in rehabilitation, to reintegrate well into society upon release, or to even feel the need to make the kinds of changes that reduce the likelihood of reoffense. The physical, emotional, and psychological damage inflicted on inmates may later be inflicted on our family members, coworkers, friends, neighbors and others who come into contact with abused inmates after their release.
Unless and until we address these types of egregious shortcomings in our own country’s human rights record, we have little business, and even less standing, to broadly critique the rest of the world. And until we decide as a country to get serious about protecting the human rights of inmates, we will all suffer the consequences.
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