USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

February 28, 1999

USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

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"That was not part of my sentence, to...perform oral sex with the officers."
New York prisoner Tanya Ross, November 1998.(1)

This report describes violations of the internationally guaranteed human rights of women incarcerated in prisons and jails(2) in the United States of America. The violations include rape and other forms of sexual abuse; the cruel, inhuman and degrading use of restraints on incarcerated women who are pregnant or seriously ill; inadequate access to treatment for physical and mental health needs; and confinement in isolation for prolonged periods in conditions of reduced sensory stimulation.

Amnesty International calls on the federal and state and local governments and authorities at all levels to take urgent action to ensure that the laws, regulations, policies and practices for which they are responsible rigorously conform to international standards and respect the human rights of women deprived of their liberty.


The USA has played a leading role in the development of the international system of human rights protection over the past 50 years.(3) However, it has been reluctant to submit itself to international human rights law and to accept the same minimum standards for its own conduct that it demands from other countries.

As described below, the USA has declined to ratify key human rights treaties, it has reserved the right not to implement important provisions of treaties that it has ratified and has refused to permit people within the USA to bring complaints about alleged violations of their human rights to international monitoring bodies.

TheInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the principal international treaty setting out fundamental civil and political rights for everybody. One hundred and forty nations have ratified the treaty, that is, have agreed to be legally bound by its provisions which include the obligation to protect the right of every person not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 7).

The USA became a party to the ICCPR in 1992 but it reserved the right to refrain from implementing certain provisions or to restrict their application. For example, the US government stated that the United States considered itself to be bound by the prohibition of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment" in the ICCPR only to the extent that this "means the cruel and unusual treatment or punishment prohibited by... the Constitution of the United States." That is, it was not willing to prohibit conduct that was not already prohibited by US law.

The ICCPR establishes a body of experts, the Human Rights Committee, who monitor governments' implementation of the treaty. Under a treaty called the (first) Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee may consider complaints by individuals that a government which is a party to the Optional Protocol violated rights guaranteed by the ICCPR. Ninety-two governments have agreed to be parties to the Optional Protocol. The USA has not.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) requires governments to prohibit and punish torture in law and in practice. The USA ratified the treaty in 1994. As with the ICCPR, the government made a reservation stating that it considered itself obliged to prevent "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" only insofar as the term meant the cruel, unusual or inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the US Constitution.

The treaty has a provision under which governments may make a declaration to permit the Committee against Torture, which monitors implementation of the Convention by governments, to consider complaints by individuals that their rights under the treaty have been violated. Thirty eight countries have made such a declaration. The USA has not done so.