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How Incarceration Violates Human Rights

August 11, 2006

Including the rights of women and their families
Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC) of Massachusetts

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948 in order to protect the rights and freedoms of all people worldwide. The United States is a signatory to this document. Yet systemic violation of human rights is a factor both leading up to and during incarceration, as shown in the following examples:

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.…

As of June 30, 2004, the US incarcerated adult white males at rate of 717 per 100,000, adult latino males at a rate of 1,717 per 100,000, and adult black males at a rate of 4,919 per 100,000 (Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004). The biased application of discriminatory drug war laws accounts for much of this discrepancy. The majority of illicit drug users are white, while the majority of those incarcerated for violation of drug laws are people of color. This racism, an integral part of US institutions including prisons, is in violation of Article 2. (

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in the United States except in cases where it was the punishment for a crime for which the accused person was duly convicted. Again, biased application of discriminatory law ensured that the labor of former slaves was accessible for a fee to former slave owners. Today corporations including Victoria’s Secret, Eddie Bauer and Toys R Us use prisoner labor. Prisoners receive as little as .20 per hour. Some don’t get paid at all. Political Prisoner Ruchell Magee notes “slavery is being practiced by the system under the color of law…. Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today; it’s the same thing, but with a new name. They’re making millions and millions of dollars enslaving blacks, poor whites, and others–people who don’t even know they’re being railroaded.” (

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Strip searches, body cavity searches, beatings, rapes, deprivation of food and proper clothing, isolation, and medical neglect are part of how prisons are run. Prisoner Marcia Bunny notes, “our current standard of medical care is tantamount to a death sentence.” (“One Life in Prison: Perception, Reflection, and Empowerment”).

A British documentary called “Torture, Inc: America’s Brutal Prisons” shows prisoners being brutalized by attack dogs, stun guns and tasers, toxic chemicals, and restraint chairs.

And the recent report submitted by the US Human Rights Network to the UN Committee Against Torture regarding police brutality in the US makes clear that torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment begins well before trial or conviction.

Article 16.

(3) The family* is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Prisons hurt families by splitting up loved ones and removing income-earners and nurturers. This assault is in violation of protections that families are entitled to. An audio compilation entitled “The We That Sets Us Free” put out by Justice Now, an organization that works with women in prison, notes that “prisons destroy the right to family of people of color and poor people of all races”( *SHaRC affirms that all kinds of families are affected by the prison system.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

In all but three states, people convicted of felony offenses have their right to vote taken away, either temporarily or permanently. In Massachusetts, people with felony convictions are barred from voting while serving their prison sentences; they are rarely informed of the return of these rights upon their release. This disenfranchisement denies a person his or her suffrage rights and violates Article 21 (for more information see

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Work conditions outside of prisons are unfavorable for too many people. As corporations moved factories overseas, prisons were built to deal with the unemployed and underemployed. Now corporations are being encouraged to use prisoner labor, which is even cheaper and subject to far less oversight. Historian Manning Marable discusses the problems facing communities of color, noting that “mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disenfranchisement” feed and accelerate each other creating more dispossession and poverty ( This lack of work with favorable conditions and compensation outside prison, itself a violation of Article 23, contributes to people going to prison, where they face harsher violations of the right to work.

Work conditions in prisons are also not favorable and prisoners do not receive favorable remuneration. There are no minimum wage or overtime protections, and workers are not allowed to form or join unions for the protection of their rights and interests. Beverly Henry, a female prisoner in California describes being paid 55 cents an hour sewing American flags. (“Reclaiming the Red, White and Blue For All Americans” (

Upon reentry a prisoners’ record creates insurmountable obstacles. Jobs held behind prison walls often become unavailable upon release. Background checks are a more frequent occurance for low-wage and human service work, thus disproportionately impacting poor people and women. In addition, the effect of a criminal record is more severe for people of color (Pager, D., 2003, The Mark of a Criminal Record, American Journal of Sociology).

Article 25.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

By incarcerating mothers, the primary nurturers and caregivers, prisons violate rights of mothers and children to special protection. According to the May 1994 issue report of Women’s Economic Agenda Project, 90% of women in prison are single mothers ( Incarceration of mothers, or anyone, for acts incited by conditions of poverty, in lieu of providing for basic human needs, is itself a violation of rights (

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

The US education system is inadequate for so many people of color and people living in poverty, and is one of the major reasons people end up in prison. As education budgets are cut, police, court and prison funding grows exponentially. New laws circumvent parental involvement while police and the courts are given legal authority to oversee youth and children. Positive family structures are actively destroyed by such laws and result in unnecessary and senseless involvement of children, youth and parents in the criminal justice system. Garrett Albert Duncan argues that “urban pedagogies effectively serve an economic function: to channel young people of color in the US into the prison system.” (“Urban Pedagogies and the Celling of Adolescents of Color” in Critical Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex,

Likewise, educational programs in prisons have been severely cut, in violation of Article 26. David Matlin notes in Prisons: Inside the New America, “In August of 1994, President Clinton’s Crime Bill destroyed the monies designated on a nation-wide basis for all Prison Education programs.” Without job-training or education, people incarcerated face immense difficulty in obtaining education or finding employment and housing upon release. Given that poverty and homeless are also major indicators of who goes to jail or prison it should come as no surprise that many people often end up back in prison.

In order to protect human rights, we must end the system of racism, violence, and exploitation, a system where prisons play a major role. We need alternatives to warehousing people of color and people struggling with poverty and addiction. Instead of investing money in more prisons, money should be invested in communities for them to solve their own problems, ending the conditions that send people to prison.

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