One of the most serious and widespread human rights issues in the US is our prison system, in which more people per capita are incarcerated than any other country in the world where comparable records are kept. As Human Rights Watch reports regarding Human Rights and US prisons, “Practices contrary to human rights principles, such as the death penalty, juvenile life-without-parole sentences, and solitary confinement are common and often marked by racial disparities.”
These human rights violations directly affect the millions of Americans in prison and indirectly affect millions more who have family and loved ones behind bars. The tertiary effects of the prison-industrial complex are felt throughout American political life as resources are put not into keeping Americans safe from crime but from finding people to lock up and keeping those people behind bars. Moreover, the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans, who are disproportionately people of color, has helped the political fortunes of the Republican Party, a party that relies almost entirely on white people for its votes.
Our prison system has trapped millions of Americans in a web of minimum sentences, draconian drug laws, powerful lobbying groups representing those whose wealth and livelihoods are based upon locking up others, and privatized prisons that need to have keep cells filled to make a profit. These millions of Americans include people doing very long sentences for moderate drug violations, others who have been locked up since a very young age and a growing number of geriatric prisoners.
The prison system is inextricably linked to US drug policy as just under 25% of people in prison or jail are there for drug related crimes. While the proportion of people in jail for marijuana possession is not enormous, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for marijuana use every year, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. This drug policy has also contributed to an environment in which African Americans are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than members of any other racial group in the US.