Civil rights stolen by U.S. prison system

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (U-WIRE) — There’s a place where racists, rapists, bigots and gay bashers can go in modern America and feel at home in an environment untouched by the rights revolution of the 1960s: the American prison system.
As Americans have decided to “get tough” on criminals over the last decade, they have rolled back not only the civil rights of prisoners as recognized by international standards, but also standards of civil rights in society.
In 1998, 1.7 million Americans called a concrete cell home. Only in Russia does a higher proportion of the population reside behind bars. Due to tougher drug sentencing in the never-ending “War on Drugs,” and parole-eliminating legislation like that in Virginia, surging prison populations have forced states to find means of dealing with those incarcerated.
Private prisons have become an increasingly more popular alternative for controlling prison overcrowding and costs. The international monitoring group Human Rights Watch notes in its 1999 report on human rights developments in the United States that 100,000 adults are incarcerated in 142 private prison facilities.
After studying conditions at many such prisons, Human Rights Watch noted in its report that conditions at such private institutions are woeful and insufficiently regulated. Basically, the private prison can do whatever it wants to prisoners, with dubious ramifications for those under lock and key.
At a private prison in Ohio, Human Rights Watch reports, two inmates were murdered and 13 stabbed in one year. But inmate violence is just one consequence of lax regulation. Without proper supervision, each private prison can turn into the equivalent of a pre-civil rights movement sheriff’s district in the South, free to abuse minority inmates with impunity.
Many states have entered into weak agreements with private prison contractors, enabling such contractors to wriggle out of the watchful eye of state prison regulators. As a result, many private prisons can hire whomever they want to serve as guards, irrespective of anti-discrimination hiring practices, and can treat inmates in any manner they see fit. Under lax supervision, therefore, a private prison can hire an all-white, racist guard staff and can place such persons around a prison population that is becoming increasingly black, through inconsistent drug sentencing laws and few, if any, guidelines toward guard conduct.
Essentially, if a Bull Connor-type figure in the rough-and-tough realm of prison administration secured a state contract, he could run a prison that systematically abused its minority population with little fear of state reprisal. Considering the racial charge that already exists to crime and punishment, most state administrators probably wouldn’t react stridently even if such civil rights abuses were discovered. And there’s little that inmates could do in their own defense.
Even at state-run facilities, prisoners face possible civil rights abuses from guards. At super-max prisons — those designed to handle the most violent and troublesome inmates in a state system — guards can use extreme violence on inmates for a number of transgressions. Guards at the super-max Corcoran State Prison in California have shot 50 inmates — seven fatally — since its opening in 1988.
Women face an additional lack of civil rights protection in 15 states, where no laws exist protecting them from sexual misconduct by guards. Human Rights Watch discovered that even in states with such legislation, few prison administrators properly trained their guards to refrain from sexually abusing female prisoners.
Once minority prisoners re-enter society, disenfranchising laws further deconstruct their civil rights back to pre-Selma levels. Due to disenfranchisement laws that rob convicted felons of the right to vote, 1.4 million African-American men were denied voting privileges in the last national election, making them one-third of the disenfranchised population. Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project published figures that showed almost one-third of all black men in two states were disenfranchised by such legislation, while one in four were permanently disenfranchised in seven states.
Not since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has such a large proportion of African-Americans been denied the right to vote. But unlike 1965, when the federal government actively sought to increase voting rolls, Washington presently sits idly by while states toss people off eligibility lists, many times permanently, even after they have served their sentences. For some conservative elected officials, diluting the African-American voting pool probably represents a dream come true.
Getting tough on crime, therefore, has done more than fiscally strain law enforcement and judicial budgets, limit rehabilitative programs and criminalize the poor. It has had the much more dubious consequence of rolling back 30 years of progress in civil rights. It returns society to a generation we left behind, where minorities can expect no sympathy from the state and no justice from the justice system.
Ironically, not only is crime down nation-wide — before many “get tough” measures could have a measurable effect — most criminologists agree that longer and harder time served makes one more likely to become a repeat offender. Thus, in exchange for easing their paranoia of a crime-ridden society, many voters have traded the very real civil rights of millions.

Chris Nehls’ column originally appeared in Tuesday’s University of Virginia Cavalier Daily.