When Americans hear the phrase “human rights crisis,” it is all too easy to think of something happening somewhere else in the world. In fact, violations of human rights are occurring every day in the United States, and certainly here in Florida.
Among the most glaring of these issues facing the state is the scourge of mass incarceration. It’s the result of many factors, but can be most starkly illustrated with simple numbers: 2 million people locked up by a broken system that finds it easier to shut them all away rather than rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society.
To put it another way, only 5 percent of the world’s population overall lives in the United States. Yet 22 percent of prisoners in the entire world are incarcerated in this country. Of the 50 states, the Florida Department of Corrections has the third largest prison system, with 100,000 people behind bars. These are obscene figures.
The reason so many of these people are imprisoned is not the severity of their crime, nor the threat they pose to society. Many have run afoul of misguided laws meant to get “tough on crime” by increasing the length of sentences, and requiring mandatory minimum sentences for even nonviolent crimes. Juveniles charged as adults and the detention of soon-to-be-deported immigrants also contribute to the numbers.
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Many have found themselves on the wrong side of a criminal justice system with pervasive racial discrimination at its core. U.S. criminal laws may claim to be race-neutral, but they have proven discriminatory in practice. Black men make up the majority of the prison population, and black Americans are more likely to be imprisoned than other racial groups. Black men aged 18 to 19 are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Black women are twice as likely as white women to be incarcerated.
These striking disparities are not just an affront to our values, they are actually a violation of international law. This has not escaped the notice of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which has called for reform of mandatory minimum statutes. This is where the international human rights community — and the 1,000 Amnesty International USA members and activists gathering in Miami this weekend — come in.
It’s not just the sheer numbers that have the human rights community concerned. It’s the appalling treatment of prisoners who must endure inadequate medical care and mistreatment while in custody.
Just this week, the family of Michael Baker asked the DOC for details on his autopsy. A prisoner at Santa Rosa Correctional Institute, he died after months of begging for help because he said he was being denied medication for his sickle-cell anemia and treated with hostility and indifference by medical staff.
Prisons also are struggling to meet the medical needs of inmates. Mental health care, critical for a population that disproportionately suffers from mental illness, is lacking.
These concerns will only grow as the prison population ages and the system struggles to keep up across the country. Some facilities report medical staff vacancy rates as high as 40 percent.
It’s as if no one thought that one of the consequences of warehousing millions of human beings when they’re young is that eventually they’ll get old, with all of the health issues that implies.
As the Amnesty International USA membership gathers this weekend in Miami, we will be calling for the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force to issue recommendations to bring the U.S. criminal justice system in line with human rights standards. This includes addressing mandatory minimum sentences and tailoring sentences to fit the crime, and reforming prison conditions, as well as other aspects of the criminal justice system — like clarifying that lethal force by police should be an a last resort.
President Obama and the Department of Justice have taken a first step by commuting the sentences of thousands of federal inmates, but federal prisons are just one piece of the puzzle. Florida and other state governments must meet international obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people, without discrimination and without further delay.
Margaret Huang is the interim executive director of Amnesty International USA.