UN calls US jail practices racist and affront to human dignity

Report by human rights experts comes from global investigation that began after 2020 death of George Floyd

Prisoners at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. AP
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UN human rights experts have called for major reforms of the US criminal justice system to combat systemic racism, quoting testimonies that jailed black women had been shackled during childbirth while male inmates were forced to work in "plantation-style" conditions.

In a report published on Thursday, three UN-appointed experts said they had found practices in US prisons that amounted to "an affront to human dignity" in visits in April and May.

The US diplomatic mission in Geneva declined to comment.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said it was committed to ensuring the safety and security of prisoners, employees and the public.

One such practice is restraining and shackling women prisoners during childbirth, the report said.

The experts "heard, first-hand, unbearable direct testimonies of pregnant women shackled during labour, who due to the chaining, lost their babies", it said. Asked to give details, a UN rights spokesperson referred to "several" cases and confirmed they all involved Black women.

The experts also collected direct testimonies of conditions at a Louisiana prison, where it said thousands of mostly black male prisoners were "forced to labour in the fields (even picking cotton) under the watch of white 'freemen' on horseback, in conditions very similar to those of 150 years ago".

It described the stories from the so-called Angola facility as "shocking" and said they amounted to "contemporary forms of slavery".

It also voiced alarm at the widespread use of solitary confinement, which it said appeared to be applied disproportionately to inmates of African descent.

One black man told the experts he had been kept in isolation for 11 years without interruption, the report said.

"Our findings point to the critical need for comprehensive reform," said one of the experts, Juan Mendez.

US prison conditions have been a concern for decades and rights groups have long called for those with the worst records to be reformed or shut down.

The investigation was set up by the UN Human Rights Council, of which the US is a voting member, in 2021 after the killing of George Floyd, a black man whose neck was pinned to the ground by a police officer.

The report was based on testimonies from 133 people in five US cities, as well as those collected from five detention centres.

It contained a list of 30 recommendations for US authorities, including a call for a new commission on reparations for people of African descent.

Updated: September 28, 2023, 10:52 PM