3. INTERNATIONAL PANEL FINDS U.S. GUILTY OF HUMAN
Spurred by Jimmy Carter, the United States has put the subject of human
rights on the international agenda.
Yet, few Americans are aware that, in 1979, the United States itself
was the subject of an international inquiry into human rights violations
... and found guilty.
It started on December 11, 1978, when the National Conference of Black
Lawyers, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression,
and the Commission of Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ
filed a petition with the United Nations. It alleged that there are
consistent patterns of violations of human rights with classes of prisoners
in the U.S. because of their race, economic status, and political beliefs.
Subsequently, seven international jurists, experienced in human rights
cases, came to the U.S. to investigate violations of the document of
the United National Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Standard
Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. The jurists were from Sweden,
India, England, Nigeria, Chile, Senegal, and the Republic of Trinidad
The jurists, the three organizations who petitioned the U.N., the Lutheran
Council in the U.S.A., the National Council of Churches, Black American
Law students Association of New York, the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, Team Defense, and various divisions of the United Methodist
Church divided into groups of four to cover more territory. The observed
and conducted interviews with inmates and officials in prisons across
the country. Affidavits, trial transcripts, and court documents were
studied as well as government reports on population and management of
The jurists final report stated that a "clear prima facie case"
exists of human rights violations in American prisons.
The report, which revealed many abuses within the American prison system,
had an extensive section on political prisoners beginning with the Reverend
Benjamin Chavis of the Wilmington Ten. There also were sections on abuse
of the criminal process (jury selection, prosecutorial misconduct, exclusion
of evidence), and sentencing. The jurists were appalled to find that
one 14-year-old boy was given a 48-year sentence for armed robbery.
On Death Rows around the country, the jurists observed that "the
taking of a black life, even by another black, is statistically one-tenth
as likely to be punished by death as the taking of a white life. Yet
a black who took a white life is five times as likely to receive the
death penalty as a white doing the same thing. No white has ever been
sentenced to death for murdering a black person."
There were violations of rules concerning personal hygiene, medical
services, and discipline and punishment. Particular notice was taken
of the use of harshly repressive "behavior modification units."
There were also accounts of systematic medical maltreatment and "over-prescription
of psychotropic or heavily sedative drugs."
One of the jurists, Richard Harvey, an English barrister and specialist
in criminal law, prison conditions, and Southern Africa affairs, summarized
his impressions as follow:
"It's impossible to say how strongly shocked we were. We did not
expect to find anything like this. The pervasive institutional racism,
for instance. Prison after prison looked like a colonial setting --
overwhelming white forces of guards in charge of prison populations
that are largely not white. And the racism -- as the report shows --
goes much deeper than that throughout the whole criminal justice system,
from prosecutorial misconduct to medical malpractice inside the prisons."
On August 21, 1979, the jurists' findings were announced at a press
conference held in the UN's Church Center on UN Plaza.
Author-investigator Nat Hentoff said that following the press conference,
"There was a brief report on CBS radio, but nothing on network
or local television and nothing in the next day's Times or News or Post.
Or in that week's. Or in last week's (9/3/79). The wire services did
carry a story, so why wasn't it picked up? Well, as both local and national
news functionaries told people from the National Conference of Black
Lawyers who were making media calls, 'The big black story now is Andy
Young and the fallout from his resignation'. There is only room for
one sizeable 'black story' at a time, the media folk explained."
International jurist Richard Harvey concurred with Hentoff's critique
of the media coverage, saying "I was quite surprised that after
we pave that press conference on August 21, there was nothing in the
Times. Or hardly anywhere."
The lack of coverage given this story, which exposes the causal problems
of violence in America's prisons, stands in stark contrast to the massive
and sensationalized coverage of prison riots such as that at Attica
in 1971 or the more recent tragedy at a New Mexico prison. It surely
is questionable whether Andy Young's resignation would have pushed either
the Attica or New Mexico prison riots off the front page.
The failure of the mass media to report the international inquiry into
human rights violations in the U.S. qualifies this story for nomination
as one of the "best censored" stories of 1979.
SOURCES: The Village Voice, Sept. 10, 1979, "Seven International
Jurists Journey to the Heart of Darkness," by Nat Hentoff; New
York Amsterdam News, Dec. 9, 1978, "Human Rights Violations Subject
of U.N. Petition."