United States of America
United States of America
Head of state and government: William Jefferson Clinton
Capital: Washington, D.C.
Population: 267.8 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: retentionist
More prisoners were executed in 1999 than in any year since
1951. Police brutality, deaths in custody and ill-treatment in prisons and jails were
reported. In October the US submitted its initial report to the UN Committee against
Torture, five years after ratifying the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The report acknowledged there were areas of
concern but stated that torture did not occur except "in aberrational situations and
never as a matter of policy". US authorities continued to violate international
standards protecting children. AI's year-long worldwide campaign against human rights
violations in the USA continued throughout most of the year. It called on the authorities
at local, state and federal level to take action on a wide range of human rights concerns
including the death penalty, police brutality, prison and jail conditions and the
treatment of refugees, and called on the government to ratify international human rights
In 1999, 98 prisoners were executed in 20 states, bringing to
598 the total number executed since the end of a moratorium on the death penalty in 1977.
The USA continued to violate international standards such as the prohibition on the use of
the death penalty for crimes committed by children under 18 years of age. In October the
government urged the Supreme Court not to examine US obligations relating to this ban in
connection with an appeal by Michael Domingues who was on death row in Nevada for a crime
committed when he was 16. The Supreme Court announced in November that it would not
consider the appeal.
* Sean Sellers was executed in Oklahoma in February for
murders committed when he was 16 years old.
There was continued concern about racism in application of the
* In June, Brian Baldwin was executed by electric chair in
Alabama despite appeals from 26 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington,
DC, calling for a stay of execution in view of the "clear pattern of racial
discrimination in his case".
Trials for capital offences continued to fall below
international standards. Eight prisoners under sentence of death were released from death
row in 1999 after evidence of their wrongful conviction emerged, bringing to 84 the number
of inmates released after being sentenced to death since 1973.
* David Junior Brown was executed in North Carolina in
November despite serious questions surrounding his conviction.
Foreign nationals charged with capital offences continued to
be denied their right to seek assistance from their consulates, in violation of
* The day before German national Walter LaGrand was due to be
executed in Arizona, Germany filed a request for "provisional measures" at the
International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ issued an order for the execution to be
halted. However, despite a recommendation from the Arizona parole board for a stay to
allow the ICJ time to examine the appeal, Walter LaGrand was executed in the gas chamber
on 3 March. The German government decided to pursue its legal claim against the USA in the
Police brutality including misuse of pepper spray and
police dogs, and deaths from dangerous restraint holds and shootings by police in
disputed circumstances, continued to be widely reported. Systematic human rights abuses
were uncovered in several police departments. Several police departments, including the
New York Police Department (NYPD), were reportedly under federal investigation, under a
1994 law which allows the Justice Department to sue police agencies accused of a
"pattern or practice" of abuses.
Many of the unarmed suspects shot by police were members of
ethnic minority groups; some were shot while fleeing the scenes of minor crimes or during
routine traffic stops. There was widespread concern that many police forces unfairly
targeted motorists who were members of minority groups for stops and searches, a practice
known as "racial profiling". A bill requiring the US Attorney General to keep
national statistics on race and police traffic stops was reintroduced into Congress but
had not passed into law by the end of the year. Meanwhile, some individual states passed
their own legislation to outlaw "racial profiling" and some police agencies set
up their own monitoring systems. There was also concern at several cases involving
mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals who were shot in circumstances suggesting
that they could have been subdued by non-lethal means.
Although few police officers were prosecuted for ill-treating
suspects, trials were pending in several high-profile cases.
* There were reports that police ill-treated demonstrators
protesting during the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle (Washington) in December.
There were allegations that police used pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately against
non-violent protesters, unresisting residents and bystanders. There were also reported
incidents of excessive use of force by police against people held in King County jail
after arrest. The allegations were being investigated by local civil rights groups and a
Seattle city council panel at the end of the year.
* Allegations that Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)
officers from Rampart Station beat and shot unarmed suspects, planted evidence and lied to
cover up their actions were being investigated by a special board of inquiry at the end of
the year; more than a dozen officers had been fired or suspended. The scandal, which came
to light through the testimony of a police officer arrested on unrelated charges, raised
concern about the effectiveness of the LAPD's monitoring mechanisms, despite reforms over
the past few years.
* In April the US Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit
against the New Jersey State Police for an alleged "pattern and practice" of
discriminatory traffic stops. Similar lawsuits filed by civil rights groups against
various state or local police departments were pending in a number of states including
Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
* In October the Justice Department sued the Columbus (Ohio)
Police Department for tolerating a pattern of civil rights abuses, including excessive use
of force, false arrests and improper searches.
* Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a frail, mentally ill African
American woman in her fifties, was shot dead by a Los Angeles police officer in June after
she tried to lunge at officers with a screwdriver. An initial LAPD internal review ruled
the shooting to be within policy, although the officers were criticized for using
"faulty tactics". Following the fatal shooting by an LAPD officer of Felix
Valenzuela, who was 16 years old, unarmed, naked and bleeding, in November, the LAPD
established a task force to review its procedures for dealing with disturbed individuals.
* In December an NYPD officer was sentenced to 30 years'
imprisonment for the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997. The officer had
beaten and kicked Abner Louima and thrust a broken stick into his rectum, causing serious
injuries to his small intestine and bladder. A second police officer found guilty of
taking part in the assault was awaiting sentencing at the end of the year. Two other NYPD
officers were charged with second degree murder for killing Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West
African immigrant who was shot at 41 times outside his home in February after officers
apparently mistook him for a criminal suspect.
In June the Justice Department held a national summit on
police brutality attended by community, police and civil rights representatives. This was
one of several government initiatives aimed at increasing police accountability and
improving relations between communities and the police.
In September and October AI held hearings on police brutality
in Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh and was working with local organizations to draw up
further recommendations at the end of the year.
Ill-treatment in prisons and jails
Ill-treatment in prisons and jails, including physical and
sexual abuse and abusive use of electro-shock weapons, continued to be reported. Several
prisoners died, some reportedly as a result of beatings by guards. Many reported abuses
took place in isolation units in high-security prisons.
There were continued concerns about conditions in so-called
"supermaximum security" segregation units, where growing numbers of prisoners
were kept in long-term isolation in small, sometimes windowless cells, in conditions of
reduced sensory stimulation. In March a federal district judge ruled that the
"extreme deprivations and repressive conditions of confinement" in segregation
units in Texas prisons violated the US constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual
punishment. A state appeal against the ruling, which dealt with a range of Texas prison
conditions, was pending at the end of the year.
There were continued concerns about the use of electro-shock
equipment including remote control electro-shock stun belts, stun shields, stun guns and
tasers (a device which fires darts connected to wires through which an electric shock is
transmitted). AI urged federal, state and local law enforcement and correctional
authorities to ban stun belts and suspend the use of all other electro-shock equipment
pending a rigorous, independent inquiry into the use and effects of such equipment.
* In January a federal court issued a preliminary injunction
in the case of Ronnie Hawkins banning the use of stun belts in Los Angeles County
courtrooms on the grounds that the "chilling effect" of the fear of the pain
inflicted through its activation could deter defendants forced to wear such belts from
properly participating in their defence. A judge had ordered the stun belt worn by Ronnie
Hawkins to be activated during a court hearing in June 1998 after he had repeatedly
interrupted the proceedings verbally. An appeal by the county against the ruling was
pending at the end of the year.
* On 15 April, the stun belt that Jeffrey Weaver was wearing
during his capital trial in Florida was activated.
* Federal and state investigations opened in July into
allegations of systematic beatings by guards of prisoners in X Wing in Florida State
Prison, a punitive isolation unit. One prisoner, Frank Valdez, died of injuries sustained
while he was being "extracted" (forcibly removed) from his cell in July; all his
ribs were broken and his body showed imprints of boot marks. Earlier beatings, which
guards had tried to cover up, came to light after prisoners wrote to a newspaper about
their plight. Nine guards were suspended and one was charged in November with aggravated
assault in connection with Frank Valdez' death. Inquiries were continuing at the end of
* Serious human rights abuses, including racist abuse and
misuse of stun weapons, were reported in Red Onion and Wallen Ridge state prisons, two new
"supermaximum security" facilities in Virginia. AI called for an immediate ban
on use of electro-shock weapons in Virginia prisons. In Red Onion State Prison it was
alleged that shackled inmates, most of whom were black, were routinely made to wear stun
belts and were arbitrarily shocked; had painful rubber pellets fired at them; and were
subjected to racist slurs. Alleged abuses at Wallen Ridge included prisoners being beaten,
shocked with stun guns while in restraints, verbally racially abused and deprived of sleep
and medical attention.
Children in custody
A federal juvenile justice bill was under consideration which
threatened to allow more children to be incarcerated with adult prisoners, in violation of
international standards which stipulate that they should be held separately. The bill had
not come before Congress by the end of 1999. There were continued reports of ill-treatment
of children in custody.
There were concerns regarding the treatment of asylum-seekers,
many of whom were locked up on arrival and detained indefinitely, often together with
criminal prisoners and in inhumane conditions, without knowing if or when they would be
Women in prison
There were many reports of ill-treatment of women inmates; the
number of women held in US prisons and jails had tripled since 1989. Abuses included the
use of restraints on sick or pregnant prisoners and inadequate medical care. Sexual abuse
of women prisoners by male staff continued to be reported in various jurisdictions. AI
called for female inmates to be guarded only by female officers, in line with
international standards but contrary to common practice in the USA; for measures to
protect inmates who report abuses from retaliation; and for a ban on the routine shackling
of pregnant women.
In March the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women,
its causes and consequences, issued a report of her 1998 visit to the USA in which she
cited concerns about widespread sexual abuse and the cruel use of restraints on pregnant
prisoners and detained asylum-seekers. In calling for a series of reforms, she recommended
that certain posts in women's prisons such as those responsible for guarding
housing units and body searches should be restricted to female staff.
* In April AI published its findings following a visit to
Valley State Prison for Women in California in November 1998. AI detailed concerns
including harsh conditions in the prison's Security Housing Unit where women, some of them
mentally ill, were held in punitive isolation, sometimes for comparatively minor
The Californian authorities later informed AI that they had
tightened procedures for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct in Californian
prisons. However, no changes to the Security Housing Unit conditions were reported. In
September more than 40 prison staff were reported to be under investigation for sexual
misconduct in several women's prisons in California.
* In October, a state inquiry was announced into complaints of
widespread sexual abuse by guards at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in
Virginia. Complaints ranged from officers giving gifts to inmates in return for sexual
favours, to rape. Inmates reported that most prisoners were afraid to report abuse because
they feared reprisals from guards.
Six states Massachussetts, Montana, Nebraska, Virginia,
Washington and West Virginia introduced laws in 1999 criminalizing all sexual
contact between prison staff and inmates, bringing to 43 the number of states in which
such legislation was in force by the end of 1999.
In July Illinois passed legislation ending the practice of
using shackles on pregnant women in prisons and county jails while being transported to
hospital, during labour and after giving birth.
AI called for the release of Leonard Peltier, based on its
longstanding concerns about the fairness of the proceedings leading to his conviction.
Leonard Peltier, leader of the American Indian Movement, had been convicted in 1977 of the
murder of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and sentenced to two sentences of
In September President Clinton granted conditional clemency
allowing the immediate release on parole of 11 Puerto Rican independence supporters
serving long sentences for politically motivated offences.
In May the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found
that the incommunicado detention by US forces of 17 Grenadians for between six and nine
days following US military action in Grenada in 1983 had failed to comply with US
obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man to prevent
arbitrary detention. The case had been filed against the US government in 1991 by the 17
former detainees, most of whom were members of the Grenadian government or military who
were subsequently convicted of responsibility for the murder in October 1983 of former
Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.
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