U.N. experts allege systemic racism and rights abuses in U.S. prisons

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Black people in the United States criminal justice system face “systemic racism and racial discrimination by law enforcement officials,” United Nations experts said in a report released this week, after an investigation launched in 2021 amid the protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

In “an affront to human dignity,” prisoners have been forced to give birth in shackles and to give babies into state care only hours after birth, and Black prisoners face disproportionate rights violations, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council findings — collected by a group of experts who in the spring visited five detention centers, met with officials throughout the country and took direct testimony from more than 130 people.

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The country must adopt a “human rights-based approach” to contend with a “profound lack of trust of people of African descent in law enforcement and the criminal justice systems,” the authors argue, “mainly due to the historical and continuous police violence suffered, and the sense of systemic oppression and impunity for these violations.”

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for a response to the report, which addresses the justice system at the federal, state and local levels.

The “Federal Bureau of Prisons is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all incarcerated individuals in our population, our employees, and the public,” Benjamin O’Cone, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said in an email.

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The authors write that they were horrified to find majority-Black prison populations “forced to labour in the fields (even picking cotton)” in “the same soil worked by slaves before the Civil War,” in the case of Louisiana State Penitentiary. A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond to requests to comment on the report’s characterizations.

Drug laws and policies “in place for at least five decades in the United States” make “Africans and persons of African descent disproportionately more likely to experience harmful interaction with law enforcement and the criminal legal system,” the authors write.

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They cite concerns commonly raised by rights groups and criminal justice reform advocates: among others, the country’s near-unparalleled rate of imprisonment per capita, a disproportionate share of Black prisoners, varying doctrines on police use of force, a high rate of police killings, the large presence of law enforcement in schools, poor prison conditions, the widespread use of solitary confinement and the disenfranchisement of prisoners.

The authors condemn the prevalence of the death penalty despite many exonerations of death-row prisoners, the use of forced prison labor and a high percentage of prisoners (about 15 percent as of 2020, per the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group) serving life or what amount to life sentences.

The experts who compiled the report included Tracie L. Keesee, co-founder and president of the Center For Policing Equity and a former New York Police Department deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion; Juan E. Méndez, an Argentine human rights lawyer and former commissioner of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Yvonne Mokgoro, a former justice on South Africa’s constitutional court.

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They recommend an approach to policing and incarceration that would emphasize transforming underlying conditions, including poverty and racial inequity, and call for a reduction in police killings, the decriminalization of low-level drug offenses, a national strategy to reduce the rate of Black imprisonment and the abolition of the death penalty and life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Since the sentencing in 2021 of Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Floyd, which sparked a global moment of reckoning over racism and policing, the U.N. Human Rights Council has taken up many of the demands of the protest movement.

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In 2021, then-U. N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, said the United States faced a whole-of-society, “long-overdue need to confront the legacies of enslavement … and to seek reparatory justice.”

She called for reparations, broadly defined to include restitution, rehabilitation, educational reforms, acknowledgment, apologies, memorialization and “guarantees” against further injustice.

Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.

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