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Prisoners should be treated with dignity

Strasbourg 05/03/2007
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Conditions in prisons are appalling in several European countries. In some cases the treatment of the inmates is clearly inhuman and degrading. This is not acceptable as prisoners also have human rights. It may not be popular to invest in the improvement of detention centres but governments have a duty to ensure that prison sentences do not destroy the health of those deprived of liberty.

The obvious purpose of a prison sentence is to punish the offender and prevent him from continued criminal activities. Another intention should be to ensure the rehabilitation and reintegration of the prisoner in society after release. Agreed international and European standards are based on these assumptions; they clarify that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights.

The European Prison Rules adopted by the Council of Europe state that all detention shall be managed so as to facilitate the reintegration of the prisoners into free society. The reality, however, is that too little is done today to rehabilitate and reintegrate. This is probably one reason why the recidivism rate is high; many released prisoners just return to crime in a vicious circle.

A major problem in almost every European country is that the prisons and pre-trial detention centres are overcrowded. In some countries there are more than two times as many inmates as foreseen when the institutions were built. The guideline defined by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) of at least 4 square meters per inmate for cells with several prisoners is often not respected. In some cells prisoners do not even have their own bed and have to sleep in shifts.

When recently in Georgia I visited a prison that had been closed for repair and development after recommendations by the CPT. There had been a considerable renovation of the medical and hygienic facilities – but the cells were already overcrowded and one could feel that the air lacked oxygen. Prisoners were afraid that the situation would be very difficult during the summer heat.

Overcrowding also entails a constant lack of privacy – even, for instance, when using the toilet facilities. In these cases the right to private life is undermined. Such conditions increase tensions and result in more violence between prisoners and between prisoners and staff. This, again, undermines efforts for rehabilitation. The CPT has concluded on more than one occasion that the adverse effects of overcrowding have resulted in inhuman and degrading conditions of detention.

It has to be recognized that special security measures sometimes are necessary in order to prevent collusion and continued criminal activities by certain prisoners. The authorities must also be able to take steps to prevent “gang rule” inside the prison walls which could be very destructive and also harm other prisoners. Such restrictions should, however, be proportionate to the legitimate purpose for which they are imposed.

Disciplinary procedures are needed for cases of violence and other types of misbehaviour of inmates. They should reflect principles of justice and fairness and offer a possibility of appeal. Some of the disciplinary cells I have seen during my missions have been inhuman and should not be used. It should also be recognized that solitary confinement in itself could have a damaging impact on the individual, especially if that treatment is extended for longer periods.

The European Prison Rules state that conditions which infringe on the human rights of prisoners cannot be justified because of lack of resources. Some countries are indeed addressing the problem of overcrowding by adopting plans to build new prisons. This is positive and will allow for consideration of a more appropriate combination of security and humane infrastructures, including the granting of space for outdoor activities. However, there is also a need for more efforts to introduce alternatives to imprisonment, especially in less serious cases.

For those who have to go to prison several aspects are especially important:

• Prisoners should have the possibility of medical treatment when they so need. In many countries today there are cases of tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV in the prisons. Quite a number of the inmates have a history of drug abuse and too few prisons offer methadone treatment or other support in such cases. To deprive someone of his liberty entails a moral duty of care.

• A considerable number of inmates have a weak school background and some of them are even illiterate. Possibility for education and job training can contribute to increasing the possibility of starting a normal life after release.

• Prison work should be approached as a positive element of the prison regime. Recreation and exercise should also be incorporated into the daily activity of prisoners.

• Prison officers are often under heavy pressure and also suffer as a result of the primitive conditions and overcrowding. Unfortunately, jobs in the penitentiary institutions are often badly paid and may have a low status in society. In order to make the prison system more humane and effective it is necessary to secure that the number of staff is adequate, that they are reasonably paid and given appropriate education and training.

Competent monitoring is always crucial for the protection of human rights. As prisons are by nature closed institutions, inspection procedures are particularly relevant. There should be regular visits to each site of detention by a genuinely independent body with the authority to open all doors and interview every detainee in privacy.

The CPT has contributed greatly to the improvement of conditions in places of detention through its missions and competent advice. Another important international actor has been the International Red Cross Committee which has organized regular prison visits to particular countries.

However, there is a need to establish effective national systems for monitoring as well. An additional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment stipulates such an inspection mechanism. Among the States which have ratified are 14 members of the Council of Europe. Another 16 European countries have signed and thereby indicated their intention to become parties to the Protocol.

This monitoring role could be given to an Ombudsman or a similar institution operating independently. In Ukraine, special monitoring teams have been set up with strong participation of non-governmental organizations. This has given the inspection system energy and a high level of independence.

Inspection systems of this kind should be able to ensure that living conditions in prisons and pre-trial detention centres are compatible with the respect for human dignity.

Thomas Hammarberg