Marjorie Cohn / Truthout
Several human rights organizations submitted a 31-page complaint to United Nations experts September 15, alleging that the United States is committing torture and violating the prohibition against racial discrimination by condemning people to death by incarceration through extreme sentences including life and life without possibility of parole (LWOP). The groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Drop LWOP Coalition and the Abolitionist Law Center, are urging the UN to call for the abolition of all death by incarceration sentences.
“Death by incarceration is the devastating consequence of a cruel and racially discriminatory criminal legal system that is designed not to address harm, violence, and its root causes, but to satisfy the political pressure to be tough on crime,” the complaint states.
The United States, a global outlier in its imposition of death by incarceration, condemns one out of every seven prisoners — or more than 200,000 people — to die in prison. Over two-thirds are people of color. Under international law, this amounts to torture and racial discrimination.
Extensive testimonials from people who are incarcerated or recently released from prison under extreme sentences are attached to the complaint. “At the time of my arrest in 1995, I had no idea this country was at the height of a highly politicized and racist tough-on-crime movement that was swallowing up poor people of color by the thousands and decimating entire communities,” wrote Felix Rosado, who served 27 years of his LWOP sentence before Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf commuted his sentence to lifetime parole in July.
“Death by incarceration is a statement of condemnation against even the possibility that one can transcend their worst moment and be worthy of life outside a cage. It’s a complete negation of one’s inherent right to redemption,” Rosado told Truthout in an email. “As a hospice volunteer on the inside, I witnessed too many men take the last breaths of their death by incarceration sentences. I can think of few acts more barbaric than forcing a human being to die a slow, agonizing death in a cage.”
Sheena King is serving a sentence of LWOP for a crime she committed when she was 18 years old. She has been incarcerated at SCI Muncy in Pennsylvania since 1992. “These sentences of death by incarceration are disproportionately handed down to people of color, of limited education, with fewer resources and they have failed to make communities safer. Death by incarceration sentences have not reduced crime so they serve no real purpose and they create prison environments of hopelessness which is a danger in and of itself,” King wrote in an email to Truthout. “Without death by incarceration sentences, parole consideration would be a possibility for the corrigible. The recidivism rate of those who were paroled from death by incarceration sentences is lower than any other group of offenders.”
“Death by incarceration sentences, including life without parole, are inhumane and highlight the ineffectiveness of the United States’ criminal punishment system,” Samah Sisay, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Truthout. “The U.S. should abolish death by incarceration sentences and ensure that the disproportionately Black and aging individuals serving these sentences are afforded the right to dignity, hope and redemption.”
Black and Latinx people are disproportionately sentenced to death by incarceration nationwide, the complaint notes, finding “significant racial disparities” in rates of release and parole. It also cites “considerable racial disparities” at the charging and trial stages, which in turn impact sentencing.
The complaint references the Committee Against Torture’s repeated recommendations that states abolish irreducible life sentences, including LWOP. The Committee Against Torture is the official body that administers the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States has ratified. When the U.S. ratifies a treaty, its mandates become part of domestic law under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.
Both the Committee Against Torture and the UN special rapporteur on torture have recommended the abolition of LWOP for juveniles. The United States is the only country that allows the sentencing of youth to life without parole. In April 2021, the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court made it easier to sentence children to LWOP. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissent to Jones v. Mississippi that 70 percent of all youth who are sentenced to LWOP were children of color.
Systemic Racism Permeates the Criminal Legal System
After the public torture and execution of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States (for which I served as a rapporteur) issued a 188-page report. It documented racial profiling at every stage of the criminal legal system, which leads to violence and torture against Black people in the U.S.
The commission found that pretextual traffic stops are a common precursor to police killings and uses of excessive force against people of African descent. Race-based street stops, also called “stop-and-frisk,” often trigger the use of deadly force by police against Black people. The commission concluded that Fourth Amendment violations lead to the use of excessive force and police killings of Black people. In addition, police routinely use excessive and lethal restraints against people of African descent. They include Tasers, chokeholds, compression asphyxia, rough rides and the use of vehicles as deadly weapons.
On August 30, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination documented several violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by the United States, which is a party to that treaty. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination cited racial profiling by law enforcement and the paucity of legislation explicitly prohibiting the practice.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was “concerned at the brutality and use of excessive or deadly force by law enforcement officials against members of racial and ethnic minorities, including against unarmed individuals, which has a disparate impact on people of African descent, Indigenous Peoples, persons of Hispanic/Latino origin and Asian descent, and undocumented migrants.”
Moreover, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that racial and ethnic minorities are “overrepresented in the criminal justice system.” The Committee cited their disproportionate arrest, incarceration, solitary confinement and harsher sentences including life without parole and the death penalty.
Torture and Cruel Treatment in U.S. Jails and Prisons
In the United States, people of color are charged with the death penalty, sentenced to death and executed in disproportionate numbers compared to white people. The methods of putting people to death amount to torture. A judge in South Carolina recently found that death by electric chair is like “being burned alive” and death by firing squad is tantamount to “torture.”
“Brutal physical torture was used almost exclusively against Black suspects in Chicago during the 20-year reign of terror beginning in 1972, under police commander Jon Burge,” attorney Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office in Chicago wrote in an email to Truthout. “This state terror was sanctioned at the highest levels of the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office, and the Office of Mayor Richard M. Daley.”
Taylor, who has been involved in the fight against police torture for 35 years, said, “Some of the torture techniques applied in Chicago police stations included electric shock, dry submarino (simulating suffocation by placing typewriter covers and plastic bags over the heads of victims), mock executions, and all manner of beatings with nightsticks and rubber hoses focused on the genitals.”
“In response, lawyers, torture survivors and their family members, investigative journalists and an intergenerational and interracial movement of activists and community members have fought a 40-year battle to expose and combat this reign of terror,” Taylor explained. They took the issue to the Committee Against Torture, which responded by linking Chicago police torture to torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo in its 2005 report.
The activists won “a remarkable package of reparations for 60 torture survivors — the first of its kind — from the City of Chicago,” Taylor noted. “However, the fight for those torture survivors who remain behind bars due to coerced confessions, as well as many other predominately persons of color who have been, and continue to be, subjected to all forms of physical and psychological torture continues to this day in Chicago and throughout the U.S.”
In 2011, the UN special rapporteur on torture called for a prohibition on solitary confinement beyond 15 days. Solitary confinement, which could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, violates the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the U.S. has also ratified.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote in House of the Dead. The systemic racism and torture that permeates the U.S. criminal legal system exemplifies how cruel the United States really is.
Fortunately, activists and human rights organizations around the country, including the anti-death by incarceration coalition, anti-torture activists in Chicago, the Black Lives Matter movement and abolitionists, are organizing to stop these racist and harmful practices.