Are human rights abuses of the Chinese judicial system worse than that of the land of the free? A difficult call

Jun 13, 2023
Prison cell with rays of light from the window.

Doing the rounds on YouTube is the case of a black American Tyshon Booker arrested when he was 16 for being present (with a gun) at a murder which he did not commit (the murderer confessed). He was given a 51 year minimum sentence. This case is, of course, is only the disgraceful tip of the human rights abuses embedded in the US’s state and federal judicial systems. Given the penchant for US officials to persistently raise human rights abuse with their Chinese counterparts what level of hypocrisy is involved here?

A comparison is apt given both countries currently have around the same number of people in prison – around 1.7 million. The irrepressible American free enterprise system has created a booming business out of prisons – a $74 billion industry servicing a variously estimated 1.5 – 2 million clients – well, prisoners if you must. That’s 25% of the world’s prison population sourced from only 5% of the world’s population: something of a world record. But the rough equality of prisoner numbers with China disappears from sight when the metrics are per capita. There are 3 times more prisoners per capita in the US than China – 523 per 100,000 compared to 176.

Human rightists may challenge these figures and wish to add to China’s estimated 700,000 or so in ‘detention’ and the claimed 1 million Uyghurs in ‘training camps’. Once added, China still runs a very poor second with a total of around 350 per 100,000. Moreover, the USA manages to have more than 3 million under correctional supervision and 5.5 million people either in prison/parole or probation.

(data: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2001)

How on earth has the land of the free so incarcerated and criminalised itself? Much is owed it seems to President Nixon who in the 1970’s infected the US with a war on drugs opening the gateway for what has become an abominable form of human rights abuse – minimum mandatory sentences. This weaponising of the judicial process not surprisingly spread rapidly into state legislators. New York Mayor Nelson Rockefeller perfected the art in the mid 1970s with his infamous mandatory 15 year sentence for not only drug dealers but also for hapless addicts. As the following graph shows, the increase in the prison population (which numbered a ‘mere’ 300,000 in 1972) that followed Nixon’s war was nothing short of extraordinary in its speed and numbers involved.

(data: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice statistics 2001)

Fast forward to today: such mandatory sentences still abound in state legislatures and in draconian forms.

The treatment of those who do commit murder is if anything, even more abusive of human rights. There is of course the still widespread continuing barbaric practice of capital punishment. But almost equally inhumane is the extraordinary lengthening of the time prisoners now spend on death row. Ironically, it was the Federal US courts decisions in the 1970’s requiring a judicial review of death sentences which has led to this this lengthening. The immensely complex and lengthy review process means there are currently around 2,500 people on death row in the US of which half have been on death row for a staggering 18 years or more.

There is, not surprisingly, a business side to incarceration USA leading to further abuses. Privatisation is booming with over 100 prisons housing over 60,000 inmates. Some 800,000 prisoners dutifully work in industrial jobs and variously get paid either nothing (those incarcerated in the Republican oriented states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) or between 13 and 52 cents an hour. These workers, it turns out, are a not insubstantial factor in the US economy being a vital support for the US military complex. According to Left business Observer they produce 100% of military helmets, munition belts, bullet proof vests, ID tags…the list goes on. They are no less present in the private sector contributing a major share of the labor for such sectors as office furniture and home appliance assembly.

A survey of inmates carried out by the American Civil liberties Union revealed 70% of inmates claimed refusal to work usually meant a withdrawal of prison privileges, with a similar proportion indicating they had no access to formal job training which might benefit them on release.

It seems those on death row are not be so burdened with work (no wasting of job training here) being generally isolated from other prisoners and thus spending much of their decades of incarceration in solitary confinement. It’s hard to imagine a more excruciating form of human rights abuse.

Public concern over persecution of the Uyghur minority group in China calls for an examination of minority group bias in the US system of incarceration. Black Americans who make up 12% of the total population are grossly over representation in prisons – 38% – and on death row – 41%.

One of the core principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the explicit prohibition of governments to subject individuals to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. As such there is a growing body of international case law which suggests that extended confinement on death row under threat of execution does indeed constitute such forms of punishment. That surely extends to much of the mandatory minimum sentence industry.

All this is not to say a direct moral equivalence between China and the US should be drawn given how different the judicial processes are. Suffice to say there is little to suggest an inherent moral ascendency in the land of the free.

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