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U.N. Panel Charges 'Shocking' Rights Violations In U.S. Prisons

A United Nations-appointed panel issued a report documenting “shocking” violations of basic human rights and pointing to “staggering” racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, Reuters reports. Practices routine in U.S. prisons, like shackling women during childbirth and unpaid forced labor, are an “affront to human dignity,” and represent the “worst version of a racist criminal legal system” that perpetuates slavery to the present day, said the U.N. report, dated Sept. 28. The panel of three experts condemned other rights violations, expressing alarm that solitary confinement, false arrests, and disenfranchisement due to arrest have now become “generalized practice” in the U.S. They called for major reforms and made policy recommendations, including withdrawing armed officers from routine traffic enforcement and from schools. The panel included Yvonne Mokgoro, a former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund; Juan Mendez, a human rights law professor at the American University-Washington College of Law and former U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and inhuman treatment; and Tracie Keesee, a former police administrator now heading the Center For Policing Equity.

The report was based on an investigation that included visits between April and May to detention centers in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York, and testimony from officials and 133 affected individuals. “We reject the ‘bad apple’ theory,” and recognize “evidence suggesting that the abusive behavior of some individual police officers is part of a broader and menacing pattern,” said Mendez. The U.N. report shows not only that the U.S. criminal justice system is pervaded by certain uniquely inhumane practices, but also that the worst of those abuses are often reserved for non-white Americans, especially Black people. That dynamic is a clear reflection of systemic discrimination and other legacies of slavery and legalized apartheid, according to the panel. A U.N. spokesperson said the panel became aware of “several” cases where pregnant women lost their babies due to being shackled, all involving Black women. The U.N. report also discussed “incommunicado detention,” or arrests made without providing access to a lawyer or even information about the whereabouts of the detainee, often accompanied by other ill-treatment – and forced, unpaid labor.


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