Prisoner Rights and Conditions of Confinement
We work with prisoner rights groups to ensure the humane treatment of the imprisoned. We address issues including, but not limited to:
- prevention of all types of violence—be it abuse by prisoners or correctional officers—that result from overcrowding, the unnecessary use of solitary confinement and other forms of segregation, the lack of productive activities, etc.
- provision of adequate health care and mental health services;
- assistance to those who have been wrongfully convicted and/or illegally imprisoned;
- abolishment of the death penalty;
- establishment of an amnesty commission to provide relief to political prisoners; and
- thorough independent, as well as congressional investigations, of U.S. prison conditions.
Our specific focus is on Indigenous prisoners. Why? The Indigenous population of the U.S. does not receive equal justice under the law.
Since the 1980s, Congress has toughened federal penalties by adding mandatory minimum sentences—which are often more severe than those handed out by states. Coupled with that was the abolishment of parole in the federal system. As a result, American Indians, especially the million or so living on tribal land, can face harsher punishments than non-Indians for what are effectively local crimes.
Thousands of American Indians are serving time in the federal prison system—more, proportionately, than any other racial group. According to census and Bureau of Prisons data, tribal members living on reservations are incarcerated at a rate of more than 249 per 100,000 residents. The next group is African-Americans, who are imprisoned at a rate of 198 per 100,000.
The rate of incarceration only partially tells the story, according to a 2003 study commissioned by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal agency that creates the guidelines federal judges use in sentencing. It showed that Indian offenses amount to less than 5 percent of the overall federal caseload, but constitute a significant portion of the violent crime in federal court.
As to life inside, our particular concern is the fact that prisoners’ rights to Native spiritual ceremonies are continually denied. U.S. prison officials have refused to allow Native ceremonies to be offered as last rites to death row prisoners, for example. Officials make absurd claims that ceremonies will be used as a means for escape or that singing and the like is disruptive to the security of an institution. Tobacco has been restricted for inmates’ ceremonies with the assertion that prisons are “smoke free environments”.
We work with solidarity groups, our support network, and the general public to urge Congress to protect this and other fundamental rights of prisoners.