Prisoners are people too

Julia Perkins

This week, 38 inmates in six Arizona jails will eat only bread and water for destroying the American flag placed in their cells. When I first heard this I did not think it was something that would be allowed in the United States. Punishing prisoners like this felt like something that would happen in medieval times or in Westeros, the kingdom in HBO’s television series “Game of Thrones.”

The punishment may seem shocking, but many prisons discipline misbehaving inmates by making them eat bread called nutra-loaf for several days. Nutra-loaf contains the daily caloric recommendation, but is created with a mixture of whatever the prisons feel like putting inside, such as mashed vegetables, rice, oatmeal and margarine, according to NPR. Officers say the threat of nutra-loaf helps decrease fighting in prisons, according to NPR, but using this penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.

Food is a basic human need and even though prisoners have committed a crime, that does not mean they are no longer human beings. Criminals have lost many of their rights, such as freedom, but this does not mean they should be forced to eat something prisoners have described as “disgusting” and “bland as cardboard,” according to NPR and CBS Atlanta. Prisoners could become ill or go hungry because their only option is to eat nutra-loaf.

This case with the nutra-loaf is only one example of the backward nature of the American justice system. For instance, the United States is the only Western country with the death penalty. In fact, the United States was the No. 5 country for executions in 2012, behind only China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, according to CNN.

Unlike the United States, China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are not democratic nations with a constitution that forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.” Killing someone is “cruel” because it takes away someone’s life. It does not matter if these prisoners have been accused of heinous crimes. No one should have the right to sentence someone to death.

The death penalty has become “unusual,” since more than 140 countries have abolished capital punishment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In this way, the United States is behind the rest of the world.

Since states are allowed to have capital punishment, the United States has been unable to sign certain human rights treaties, such as the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

There is also the question of racial bias in death penalty cases. Yale University conducted a study of Connecticut death sentences in 2007 and found African Americans were sentenced to death three times more than whites when the victims were white, according to Amnesty International.

For most students it is hard to take on an issue like capital punishment because it does not directly affect us. Students are worried about getting a job after college and paying off their student loans. This makes it easy to forget the United States executed 39 people in 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. This makes it is easy to forget 38 people are eating nutra-loaf this week.

Yet, the United States’ disregard for prisoners’ rights and tolerance of the death penalty makes the country look bad. This reflects on all of us.

Young people must take on the job of changing the laws which allow states to sentence people to death and sheriffs to serve nutra-loaf to inmates. Whether by writing to political leaders, advocating on social media or staging protests, students have to show that in 2014 human rights should be a priority for the country.