In Spring 2012, the US State Department has sharply criticized Russia for detention conditions in its prisons. American officials claim numerous violations of prisoners’ rights due to harsh prison conditions, poor medical care and violent staff. The report calls these conditions “life threatening”.
The US lawmakers were also quick to respond to the death of the Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a pre-trial detention. They adopted the so-called Magnitsky blacklist of financial and travel sanctions against top Russian officials allegedly linked to the lawyer’s death. In July 2011, the US State Department put 11 Russian officials on the US visa blacklist –the so-called Cardin list initiated by Sen. Benjamin Cardin and Roger Wicker.
But what about sanctions for those responsible for bad detention conditions in American prisons? The word “bad” seems to be too mild for what is happening in Californian prisons. In late March 2012, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law non-profit went to the UN on behalf of Californian prisoners kept in solitary confinement.
The petition says that some 4,000 inmates have been kept in isolation cells for years because of their alleged gang ties. The lawyers claim that some people spend years in jail even without committing any crime. The officials suppose that a number of prisoners were jailed for taking part in hunger strikes. “They live like prisoners held in a GULAG, not a modern democracy,” says the petition.
The lawyers also wrote about violent guards, bad food and poor medical aid in Californian prisons.
Earlier, in the fall of 2011, some 12,000 California inmates went on a hunger strike demanding better conditions. Then, penitentiary services said that the reported number of strikers had been exaggerated.
This case is not unique. The US is the world’s number one country in the number of prisoners (a quarter of all detainees in the world) and is also first in the number of prisoners per 100,000 population (754 inmates). This statistics is provided by the Pew research center, which means it is quite trustworthy.
Such a large number of prisoners requires vast federal and local spending. According to the Pew researcher, the US spent some 11 bln dollars on prisons in 1987, while in 2007 this sum exceeded 49 bln. The number of detainees increased three –fold in the last 20 years.
The prisoners’ issue now concerns not only US law-enforcement agencies but is a social problem triggering discrimination.
The Pew agency says that the inmates’ race/ethnicity ratio differs from the ethnic composition of the US population. The same discrepancy is observed in the punishment of white vs. dark-skinned criminals. Whites are more often released on probation, while dark-skinned Americans are mostly incarcerated for drug-related crimes which causes ethnic and social conflicts.
Meanwhile, official penitentiary reports don’t provide that many details of prisoners’ life and explain the growing numbers of prisoners by tougher measures undertaken by law enforcement agencies after 9/11.
A lawyer for hundreds of California inmates held in solitary confinement because of their gang ties file a petition to the United Nations on Tuesday to intervene to stop the practice and investigate living conditions and prisoners’ health. The petition, sent to the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, comes after about 6,000 inmates at 13 prisons in the state went on a summer.
The document was drawn up on behalf of more than 400 inmates who have been assigned to isolation cells for years because of their gang ties, said Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.