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As Others See Us

Inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system were among the subjects of concern that drew criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Committee last July in Geneva. Maximum security prisons came under fire for virtually 24-hour confinement of prisoners to their cells. Also of concern was the large number of mentally ill prisoners not just in maximum security facilities, but also in local jails. Excessive imprisonment of youth merited reproof as well. Forty-two states and the federal government allow young people who were under 18 at the time of their offense to receive sentences of life without parole. Over 2,200 youths are currently serving such life sentences. The incarceration of women was also addressed. Given proven cases of sexual abuse of female prisoners by male officers, the committee recommended that the men be allowed access to women’s units only if accompanied by female officers.

Law enforcement officers received criticism because of the high incidence of violent crime against persons of minority orientation, with some crimes of this type committed by officers themselves. Along similar lines, the committee urged the United States to increase its efforts to eliminate police brutality, including the use of Tasers (stun guns) against mentally disturbed or intoxicated persons. The report also criticized voting laws that prevent five million former felony offenders from voting even after completing their sentences. The U.N.’s Human Rights Committee deserves credit for its bleak but accurate overview of some of the more egregious wrongs prevalent in the U.S. penal system.

A Martyr of Charity

By the saddest of coincidences, last week’s issue contained an article about martyrdom as well as a notice of the murder of Sister Leonella Sgorbati of the Consolata Missionary Society at Mogadishu in Somalia on Sept. 17. America’s editors have encountered and worked with missionary sisters like Sister Leonella in the Philippines, Micronesia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and East Timor.

To say that these women are heroic is an understatement. Sister Leonella’s life is an example. She was born and raised in Gazzola, Piacenza, in Italy. After entering the convent, she trained as a nurse in England, mastering the language first, a skill that is second nature to missionary sisters. She was assigned to Kenya, where she worked in Consolata hospitals before being chosen regional superior in 1993. After her term, she went to Somalia to found a nursing school in 2002. Her first students graduated earlier this year.

Sister Leonella had to wrestle with bureaucracy and faced danger daily. She had no illusions about the danger but carried on with her work convinced of the divine nature of her vocation. Her sisters finally agreed to be evacuated and accompanied her body on the plane back to Nairobi, where she will be buried.

Her last words were I forgive. As he prayed for her, Pope Benedict asked that her sacrifice would become the seed of real relationships between people.

Life After Office

Everyone is entitled to retire. But retirement has not stopped Jimmy Carter from raising the standards for what a former president can be and do. He has built houses with Habitat for Humanity, mediated international peace talks through the Carter Center and monitored elections. President Clinton has also established a foundation of his own, guiding initiatives on H.I.V./AIDS, climate change and global leadership.

Extended public service after one’s tenure has expired comes in more modest styles, too. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke last month before some 20,000 to 30,000 people in Central Park to press Sudan to allow international relief to Darfur. And the possibility of voicing dissent when one is no longer on duty prompted six retired U.S. generals to argue last April that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should step down.

Positive influence is felt whenever the right person speaks the right word at the right time. In September another retired general, Colin L. Powell, used his still-considerable credibility as former head of the joint chiefs of staff and secretary of state to take a rare position against the Bush administration on the issue of detainees suspected of terrorism. Along with three Republican senators, Powell insisted that we adhere to the current Geneva Accords. If you just look at how we are perceived in the world and the kind of criticism we have taken over Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and renditions, Powell said in an interview, whether we believe it or not, people are now starting to question whether we’re following our own high standards. Retirement often permits people to do the right thing when they were not ready to do it in office.

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