Friday, September 17, 2010

Human Rights: Bipartisan, bicameral bills seek to spotlight and curb inhumane conditions in foreign prisons

Source: Office of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (photo) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) Thursday introduced, with the support of a broad spectrum of faith-based, human rights, and justice reform organizations, a bill intended as a catalyst to curb inhumane conditions in foreign prisons. Identical bipartisan legislation to their Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2010 was also introduced Thursday in the House by Representatives Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.).

The bills call attention to the plight of the millions of people in foreign prisons and other detention facilities who the bills' sponsors say are subjected to mistreatment reminiscent of the Dark Ages. Prisoners languish for years in subhuman conditions, deprived of adequate food, water, sanitation, or space to sleep, exposed to vermin and life-threatening, contagious diseases which spread outside the prison walls, and abused and tortured by guards and prison officials who act with impunity.

Prison record keeping is often so rudimentary and unreliable that authorities do not have a credible list of who is incarcerated or for what reasons. It is not uncommon for prisoners who have never been formally charged with a crime to languish for years beyond the maximum sentence they could have received if convicted; they disappear into a decrepit, dangerous, hopeless black hole.

Leahy said, "Most Americans would be horrified by the inhumane conditions that are common in prisons in most developing countries. Prisoners, including many who have never seen a lawyer or a judge, are denied the basic necessities of life and subjected to every type of abuse by guards who act with impunity. The Leahy-Brownback bill calls attention to a global human rights problem that has been largely ignored, and provides incentives to foreign governments that make significant efforts to eliminate these barbaric conditions." Leahy chairs the Senate Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, of the Appropriations Committee.

Delahunt said, "I'm pleased to join today with Senators Leahy and Brownback and Congressman Pitts to introduce legislation that would help to address inhumane treatment in prisons around the world. Our legislation sets a world-wide standard and draws attention to countries with inhumane prison conditions while providing incentives to those that make considerable improvements to change."

Pitts said, "Basic conditions in prisons overseas can be unimaginable. In many cases, prisoners are denied food, potable water, and even bathroom facilities. And even more troubling is the fact that many of these prisoners have not even been convicted of a crime while being detained under such oppressive conditions. This legislation is intended to ensure that fundamental human rights abuses within prisons do not go unrecognized."

The Leahy-Brownback and Delahunt-Pitts bills would require the State Department to publish an annual report on countries with inhumane prison conditions and would authorize incentive aid to governments that are making serious efforts to improve conditions. The legislation would also require State Department negotiations with governments that are not making improvements, create a senior position at the State Department responsible for coordinating U.S. efforts to address foreign prison conditions, and require new training programs for Foreign Service Officers.

A broad range of organizations have endorsed the Senate and House bills, including the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, International Justice Mission, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals, Open Doors USA, Open Society Policy Center, Penal Reform International, Prison Fellowship, and United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.