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U.S. accused of human rights abuses in prisons

Inmate and bars
Inmate at Rikers Island prison  
October 6, 1998
Web posted at: 12:58 a.m. EDT (0458 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For the first time ever, Amnesty International is launching a worldwide campaign against a Western nation: the United States.

Amnesty International accuses the U.S. prison system of a "persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations."

Those allegations are included in the 153-page report "Rights for All," which is to be released Tuesday during a news conference featuring former boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

About 1,000 women give birth each year in U.S. prisons. Former convict Tanya Watson was being held at New York's Rikers Island on felony drug charges when she went into labor. She told CNN she was kept in shackles while she was giving birth to her son.

"I was saying, 'Can I hold the baby?' They placed the baby on my chest, and the doctor held the baby on me, and they did not unhandcuff me," Watson said.

The City of New York said it has no knowledge of prisoners at Rikers Island jail being shackled during labor and childbirth.

"Cruel, degrading and sometimes life-threatening methods of restraint continue to be a feature of the U.S. criminal justice system," according to the Amnesty International report. It also discusses electroshock stun technology, riot shields and other devices used by prison guards and police officers.

In reply to the report, Gerald Arenberg, a spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police, said, Stun guns, like any tool, can be misused. But "it's actually one of the better devices, if used properly," he said.

Tanya Watson
Tanya Watson hugs her son  

The group claims the United States has more prisoners awaiting execution than any other country.

Amnesty considers the death penalty a human rights abuse because it's "applied in an arbitrary manner, subject to bias because of the defendant's race or economic status, or driven by the political ambitions of those who impose it."

And Amnesty says the United States sometimes executes people for crimes they committed as children. That puts the United States in the same category as Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Amnesty International alleges that 3,500 child convicts are being held in adult U.S. prisons in violation of an international convention on civil rights.

Other violations cited by the Amnesty report include police brutality, sexual abuse of female prisoners and the mistreatment of people seeking asylum. It cited cases of asylum seekers who were detained more than a year alongside convicted criminals.

Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Reuters contributed to this story.

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