United Nations Hears Of Human Rights Abuses In U.S. Prisons


Kemba Smith. Photo: Larry Brown, NAACP

[United Nations]


GENEVA, The United Nations–The NAACP released the following remarks read before the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights by Kemba Smith ahead of the US International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) review this week:

My name is Kemba Smith. I’m a member of the NAACP Delegation. This is my second time meeting with a Deputy High Commissioner, but it’s surreal because my first contact with a UN representative was when a Special Rappatour on domestic violence came to meet with a select group of women inside a federal prison. I was a first time non-violent drug offender and was sentenced to 24.5 years, even though the prosecutor said I didn’t handle,use or sell the drugs that were involved in my case.

During my sentencing hearing, the judge fell asleep while expert testimony was being presented about the abuse that I endured while in a relationship with a drug dealer. As a domestic violence survivor, the special rappatour wanted to hear our stories and to know if we were experiencing abuses from correctional staff.

I spent 6.5 years in federal prison and in Dec. 2000, President Clinton granted me executive clemency. Since my release, I’ve become a national public speaker talking to youth in particular young women about the drug laws, making healthy choices, keeping education a priority and the importance of counseling to prevent the school to prison pipeline that’s sweeping across America.

Overall, in hindsight of my prison experience, there are an array of human rights issues that each of these working groups work extensively on, that clearly go beyond my brief overview:

Gender Rights: I gave birth to my son while incarcerated and had to have my leg handcuffed to the bed during my 2 day stay at the hospital; I had friends go to segregation and be raped by male inmates; Having male officers frisking women inappropriately during random searches.

Criminal Justice/Racial Justice: There are many other men and women who are 1st time non-violent drug offenders with life sentences w/o the possibility of parole and they already served over 20 years of their sentence; The majority of these type cases are people of color. The racial disparities with drug sentencing are alarming and Atty Gen. Eric Holder has made statements indicating there needs to be a change.

Immigration: The facilities in California (CA) and Connecticut (CT) in which I was housed, the majority of the population were Black and Hispanic. Many of them fighting immigration laws and faced with deportation after serving their sentence even though they had children who where born in USA in which they had no idea when they would be reunited with them.

My prison experience has prompted me to be a voice not only for those that are still fighting for their freedom, but I also am a voice for the over 5 million individuals who are disenfranchised and have permanently been barred from voting for life.

I was one of those individuals when I was here at the UN last, but since then I went through an extensive application process and after being out of prison 12 years, Virginia’s governor restored my right to vote in Oct. 2012.

It was disheartening for me to recollect that I had to fill out paperwork in my cell to be counted in the US Census so the states could receive funding for my presence, but upon my release, when I pay taxes in the state that I reside, my presence is discounted.

In knowing, the right to vote is the cornerstone to any country’s democracy and it’s a basic fundamental human right, does the U.S. support that I should feel as if I am less than human. It was only until my voting rights were restored that I truly felt I was equal to every other tax paying citizen. This feeling should be afforded automatically once a person has completed their prison sentence, to be human, to be counted especially since we have been just considered an inmate number during the years of our incarceration.

Thank you again for your time and efforts.

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