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Human Rights in Prison

Punishment vs. Human Rights — Are Prisons Going Soft?

Though I don't know of many prisons guarded by the likes of the two pictured below, with the changes happening to crime and punishment in the US, it might not be long. With one out of every 100 Americans behind bars, and prisons turning criminals out to meet their budgets, the debate between what's a human right, and what liberties need be taken away as punishment is a tricky one. Several states have just come to some conclusions — on the side of rights.

In New York's juvenile detention centers, transgender youth are now allowed to wear whatever gendered-uniform they associate with and be called by whatever name they request, as well as receive access to special housing under a new anti-discrimination policy. The enhanced rights are drawing praise from advocacy groups. A spokesman for Governor Paterson said the policy reflects the state's intent to be "tolerant, responsive and respectful" of gender identity and gender expression issues.

Hawaii and California join New York among the small list of states that have taken steps to afford specific civil rights protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in juvenile detention. This comes after a 2001 report found that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth routinely experienced discrimination, harassment and violence in New York's juvenile justice system.

Got Milk? To find out what happens if you're a vegan behind bars,


In Massachusetts a federal judge found that the state prison system violated one prisoner's civil rights by denying him a vegan diet. Though the prison system had offered the man a standard vegetarian diet, he has spent nearly a decade seeking a ruling to receive a vegan diet that excludes all animal products, including eggs and milk products.

His reasoning to require the diet? He's a Buddhist (now) and had a religion specialist testify "explain[ing] why it was wrong to consume food derived from animals and explain[ing] the concept of karma and suffering." Why is the man in prison? He beat his 5-week-old son to death by throwing him onto a hardwood floor, repeatedly stomping on and kicking him, before turning his violence on the his child's mother. He may need more than soy milk to atone for that karmic digression.

Rights are returning after prison in Florida, where Governor Crist announced this week that more than 115,000 felons are to regain their voting rights. The expansion of prison rights might come as a comfort to two California high school students who are facing 69 felony counts for hacking into their school's computer system to change their grades. One of the hackers could face 38 years behind bars. An extra-credit report or two might have been a better solution?

What responsibility do prisons have to cater to human rights? Where do rights stop and punishment begin?


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