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 and Tobago.
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 prisons.
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.”