I’ve written before on human rights violations caused by the prison system. Imprisonment as such isn’t a human rights violation. I would rather call it a limitation of human rights (specifically the right to freedom of movement, but other rights as well), at least that what it is ideally. It’s a limitation justified by the resulting protection for the rights of others. (Read more here about the need to balance different human rights). But prisons can and all too often do result in human rights violations: there can be problems of overpopulation (see here for instance) or other factors resulting in inhumane prison conditions, such as solitary confinement or prison slavery. Prisons also seem to be places that bring out the worst in people, guards included (see here, here and here). Incarceration rates also show racial bias.
Another rights problem can arise when people are put into prisons when there’s no good reason to do so (see here and here). The U.S., with it’s war on drugs, is an example. Many of the drug crimes are victimless crimes, and locking up drug users doesn’t protect anyone else’s rights, at least in most cases. Putting juveniles in prison isn’t a good idea either. Remember also that most countries put asylum seekers in “closed centers”. And, finally, prisons are often places of arbitrary arrest (see also here, related to habeas corpus). And when there is a trial and the imprisonment doesn’t seem to be arbitrary at first sight, it’s often the case that it is the result of an unfair trial. In all these cases, people are put in prison but don’t belong there. Hence their human rights are violated.
None of this is very original. What is original, I think, or at least often overlooked, is the impact of the prison system on the rights of those outside. There are of course the children and spouses left behind. But there’s also the cost of prisons. Especially bloated prison systems such as in the U.S. impose huge costs on society, costs which are largely unnecessary because many people in prison don’t belong there.
[T]he prison boom has high costs for all of us. A new prison opens somewhere in the United States every week. Imprisoning a human being in this country costs a minimum of $20,000 a year, far more than tuition at any of our state universities. National spending on prisons and jails was $7 billion in 1980; it is $60 billion today. Several states now spend more on state prisons than state colleges. We literally cannot afford our political addiction to incarceration. David Cole (source, source)
The funds pumped into unnecessary prisons can’t be used on other things, such as education and healthcare, meaning that the state in question cannot meet its international obligations to respect the right to education or the right to healthcare.
Some statistics on incarceration are here.