November 3, 2023, New York – Today, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued its conclusions and recommendations based on a review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This was its first review in nine years, and, for the first time ever, the committee recommended that the United States “establish a moratorium on the imposition of sentences to life imprisonment without parole,” often referred to as death by incarceration by advocates.
On October 17 and 18, in Geneva, a coalition of groups from around the country fighting death by incarceration joined more than 140 representatives of U.S. civil society organizations and directly impacted people in petitioning the U.N. to hold the U.S. government accountable. The groups addressed the U.S. policy and practice of death by incarceration, which they said violates the treaty’s prohibition on racism and torture and its protection of life and liberty. Over 200,000 people in the United States are currently serving death-by-incarceration sentences, and 46 percent of those people are Black, although only 14 percent of the U.S. population is Black. The groups submitted shadow reports and gave both formal and informal briefings to the committee, which in turn informed the committee’s questions to the U.S. delegation. The groups included Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, DROP LWOP Coalition, the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, Release Aging People in Prison, The Visiting Room Project, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In the concluding observations it released today, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its previous recommendation that the U.S. abolish death-by-incarceration sentences for all juveniles. For the first time, they expanded their recommendation and emphasized the importance of parole eligibility for all incarcerated individuals, irrespective of age or the crime committed. The committee further expressed concern that persons of African descent are disproportionately subject to death-by-incarceration sentences in the U.S.
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In the last few months, several United Nations human rights bodies have raised alarms about death by incarceration in the United States. On June 19, United Nations experts on racism, on torture, and on arbitrary executions, among others, sent the U.S. government a letter raising concerns about the sentence and requesting a response. The government has yet to respond. On September 26, the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement, also known as the “George Floyd” Mechanism, released a report raising similar concerns. The UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendations today build on EMLER’s recommendation that “All prison sentences in the United States should include parole eligibility within a reasonable number of years, and always below life expectancy.”
The United States is obligated to abide by the ICCPR, which is one of only three international human rights treaties the country has ratified. The committee members had questioned the U.S. government officials on most of the fundamental human rights the civil society groups had raised in addition to death by incarceration, including Indigenous rights and decolonization, voting rights, freedom of expression and the crackdown on supporters of Palestinian rights, sexual and reproductive rights, trafficking, prisoners’ rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, the criminalization of homelessness, children’s rights, and the failure to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities in Gaza. In its concluding observations, the committee found the U.S. out of compliance with the treaty on most of the issues the groups had raised.
During the review, one of the committee members noted that death-by-incarceration sentences disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and other people of color and asked what the United States was doing to make parole available to all incarcerated people and to ensure the release of political prisoners serving this sentence, including Leonard Peltier. Many of the committee members, as well as those from civil society who had traveled to Geneva, expressed frustration with what they characterized as the U.S. delegation’s failure to answer that and other questions being asked during the review and the canned and inadequate nature of the responses. During the U.S. Ambassador’s concluding remarks, many members of civil society in the room rose and turned their backs in silent protest.
Stanley “Jamel” Bellamy, New York City Organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign (RAPP) and a survivor of a death-by-incarceration sentence, said, “It is incumbent on the United States to heed the call of the United Nations Human Rights Committee to correct its violations of basic human rights in routinely sentencing people, at both the federal and state level, to death by incarceration. Prison terms that exceed a person’s life expectancy are a form of torture. When I was sentenced at age 24 to die in prison, the state deprived me of the right to hope, and it was only through the extremely rare granting of clemency by our state’s governor that I was able to rejoin the community and attend the United Nations convening and advocate for the countless honorable women, men, and non-binary people I left behind.”
Lisette Nieves, a Community Leader for the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign (RAPP) whose brother is serving a death-by-incarceration sentence, said, “It is now on the United States to act upon implementing a process to abolish DBI sentences on a state and federal level to align with the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s declaration that DBI sentences are a form of torture and in violation of basic human rights. My brother Phil was sentenced to 49.5 years to life at the age of 16. He has been in prison for 41 years and is not eligible for parole until 2031. We all have a fundamental right to hope that our loved ones will come home and not die in prison.”
Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of Abolitionist Law Center, sentenced to DBI as a child, said, “The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recommended an end to death-by-incarceration sentencing and the establishment of accessible parole for all incarcerated people. The U.S. should move quickly to implement the committee’s recommendations. The challenge is now on state legislators, governors, and courts to implement these recommendations by vacating and ruling DBI sentences unconstitutional, commuting people with DBI sentences, and passing legislation to provide parole eligibility to people serving DBI in their states.”
Samah Sisay, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “This is the first time the Human Rights Committee has recommended the U.S. abolish all sentences that do not include the possibility of parole. The committee came to this conclusion after listening to the stories of so many families and individuals who have been impacted by these cruel sentences – showing that DBI sentences serve as another form of the death penalty. The U.S. must take the necessary steps to ensure that individuals serving DBI sentences have access to parole and other meaningful opportunities for release.”
Read the shadow report on death-by-incarceration sentences the groups submitted to the committee.
For more information, visit the UNHCR website.
The Center for Constitutional Rights
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.