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Preventing Death Sentences and Protecting Human Rights

Erika Spaet,
National Prison Project
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December 9, 2008

On September 20, 2004, Jonathan Magbie, a 27 year-old quadriplegic, was sent to the D.C. Central Detention Facility to serve a 10-day sentence for possession of a single marijuana cigarette. Just four days later, after two transfers to a local hospital, Magbie died a tragic and unnecessary death due to the failure of staff at the jail to treat him for acute pneumonia, to provide him with the ventilator he needed to breathe when he was tired, or even to give him enough food and water to sustain himself. One correctional officer at the jail infirmary locked him in a cell, so that he had no way to communicate his distress for hours. Just last week the National Prison Project (NPP) helped to secure a settlement with District of Columbia officials that mandates the implementation of policies that will protect disabled prisoners and assure that prisoners with medical conditions the jail cannot handle are sent to better-equipped facilities.

This is just one of the many tragic examples of gross violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Article 5, which states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” As Magbie’s death exemplifies, prisoners and detainees are often confined under conditions that turn their sentences into death sentences. According to a 2007 study commissioned by the California state government, as many as one in six prison deaths in California could have been prevented with proper medical care. Most of the NPP’s cases address the crisis of over-incarceration in the United States, including prison and jail overcrowding that results in deliberate indifference to prisoners’ mental and medical health needs.

For far too long, unnecessary deaths due to improperly treated medical conditions have been tolerated in this country, as well as deteriorating and disgusting living conditions that cause prisoners to suffer far beyond the punishment imposed by a court. For example, the NPP recently proved that detainees in the Maricopa County, Arizona jails are denied necessary medical care. These detainees in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jails in Phoenix were forced to stand for hours in crowded rooms while they suffered untreated illness, deprivation of sufficient food, and unsanitary conditions. In the Virgin Islands, Jonathan Ramos, a prisoner with mental illness incarcerated for stealing a bike, was locked up for five years, even after charges against him were dropped after he pleaded not guilty because of his mental illness. Prison officials left him to rot in isolation, where his condition deteriorated by the day. The NPP has since secured a court ruling that ordered Ramos transferred to a stateside hospital.

It would not be surprising if prisoners assumed that they are not entitled to medical care and a toilet that flushes, that they are not among the “humans” entitled to the rights stated in the UDHR. After all, U.S. prisons haven’t done such a bang-up job of adhering to this international treaty even though, according to the U.S. Constitution, it is the binding law of the land. The NPP has taken on the responsibility to combat torture in our prisons and jails and to remind prisoners that they, too, deserve protection from cruel and inhuman treatment, because the NPP believes that the rights of all Americans are not secure until the law protects prisoners as well as the rich and the powerful.

Celebrate the UDHR at 60 with the ACLU. Visit and sign the ACLU’s petition calling on the government and newly elected president to recommit to the UDHR. On December 10, the ACLU’s efforts will culminate in the online launch of an exclusive publication about the importance of the UDHR.

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