If US plays global prison ratings game, it ought to play by its own rules

The US State Department issued its annual review of human rights around the world last week - grading each nation on its performances in a number of categories.

Only one country escaped scrutiny: the US itself.

While monitoring human rights and holding other countries accountable is a valid and valuable exercise, there is something disquieting about the US earnestly preaching to countries like Iceland and New Zealand while completely ignoring its own practices.

One of the areas the report monitors is the functioning of prison systems. So we had the bizarre spectacle of a nation that incarcerates 2.2 million people - one-quarter of all the world's prisoners - casting a baleful eye over Iceland, which has a grand total of 110 people incarcerated. Sixteen prison cells in Iceland have no toilets, the report noted with stern disapproval.

New Zealand deserves even more criticism, according to the report, for imprisoning a disproportionate number of the indigenous Maori minority. Maori make up 15 percent of the general population, but 50 percent of the prison population. Yet the US has the same problem right here at home: Prison and jail populations are 40 percent black, while African-Americans account for just 12 percent of the total population.

New Zealand also has a handful of inmate assaults each year. In California prisons, alone, there were 11,527 such assaults in 2001, and 13 resulted in fatalities. New Zealand had one prison suicide in 2003. The US doesn't even track such data. But a Louisville Courier Journal investigation in 2002, for example, found at least 17 suicides in Kentucky jails during the previous 30 months.

By standing in its own glass house while hurling rocks at others, the US runs the risk of being seen as self-righteous and hypocritical. Americans like to think of themselves as a moral example to the world when it comes to human rights, but clearly much of the world does not see the US that way at all.

The US incarceration rate as a proportion of the population is 5 to 10 times as great as that of other democracies.

The State Department report did not address the problem of inmate rape or controversial policies involving solitary confinement in New Zealand and Iceland. Indeed, perhaps these are rare in either country - but these constitute two of America's most pressing corrections system controversies. (Most authorities believe that in American prisons thousands of men and women are raped each year, and President Bush signed a congressional act last year mandating that the Department of Justice begin studying the issue. The US also has at least 20,000 prisoners in isolation, according to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report, and most states and the federal prison system operate at least one high-tech, high-security prison where inmates are kept in continuous solitary confinement for months or years.)

Of course, the US prison system is far from the worst in the world, but it is the largest. Human rights groups estimate that up to 11,000 prisoners die annually in Russian prisons, mostly as a result of poor sanitation and lack of medical care. Abuse and rape also are said to be endemic. Conditions in Chinese prisons are also frequently harsh and degrading. Detainees are kept in overcrowded cells with poor sanitation and lack access to proper medical care and often even to adequate food.

However, to say that the US is better than Russia and China in such matters misses the point. As the introduction to the State Department report proclaims: "Promoting respect for universal human rights is a central dimension of US foreign policy. It is a commitment inspired by our country's founding values and our enduring strategic interests. As history has repeatedly shown, human rights abuses are everybody's concern. It is a delusion to believe that we can ignore depredations against our fellow human beings or insulate ourselves from the negative consequences of tyranny."

These are fine and stirring words. But if the US wants others to take it seriously, Americans also need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and then start fixing things at home. Only then will their words to the rest of the world carry conviction.

Alan Elsner is a national news correspondent for Reuters and author of the new book, 'Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons.' The views expressed here are his own, not those of his employer.

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