Thursday, June 16, 2011


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Over the past years, there has been a staggering increase in the prisoner numbers around the world, resulting in horrific conditions of prisons.

Conditions of detention vary from country to country; standards in most countries are very low. Even in the richest developed countries, prisons are overcrowded, they have poor physical infrastructure, lack of hygiene, and medical care, guard abuse and corruption, and violence among inmates. In many countries, prison conditions are life threatening, leading to inmate deaths from disease, malnutrition and physical abuse. In the poorest areas, cells lack ventilation, lighting, or beds. The crowding in some prisons is so bad that prisoners must sleep sitting up. In some developing countries, cells are sold to incoming prisoners by previous occupants or other prisoners. With exceptions, neither the public nor the political leaders are willing to improve the prison conditions by providing financial help. By not allowing human rights groups, journalists and other outside observers’ access to the penal facilities, prisons in many countries are hidden from surveillance.

In some countries, homicides are very frequent, inmates usually killed by other inmates rather than by guards. However inmate-on-inmate violence is often the result of official negligence. By neglecting to supervise and control the inmates within their prison facilities, by allowing the entry of weapons and drugs into the prisons, prison authorities are responsible for violence.

Incidents of collective violence, particularly in South America, also led to inmate deaths and injuries. In a February uprising coordinated by a prison gang, 10,000 prisoners took about 7,000 hostages including about 100 guards, in about two dozen prisons in Sao Paulo, Brazil. During the revolt sixteen prisoners were killed and seventy wounded. It was not very clear how many of the prisoners were killed by police; however they apparently shot at least three prisoners in the back. Three other prisoners suffocated to death after guards left them locked in a sweltering-van. An investigation was opened against various prison officials for failing to maintain security and prevent the violence.

Corruption and extortion accompanies the low salaries generally paid to guards and their inadequate training and supervision. In exchange for special treatment, inmates in many countries offer supplementary salary to prison guards. On the other hand prisoners in many countries complain that they must buy their food, medicine and other necessities from guards to allow goods to be brought into the facility.

In many countries prison authorities fail to provide basic necessities to prisoners, who are obligated to depend on families, friends or international relief organizations for food, blankets, mattresses, toiletries and even toilet paper. Insufficient food or poor diet leads to many cases of malnutrition, semi-starvation and even death; it is a serious problem in many developing countries. Another common problem is that governments continue reliance on antiquated and physically decaying prison facilities. Many prisons lack adequate sanitation facilities, a problem compounded by overcrowding. Some cells lack toilets or latrines, requiring prisoners to “slop out”; that is, defecate in buckets that they periodically emptied. There are still five prisons in Scotland where inmates have to slop out although the Committee for the prevention of torture condemned the practice as “inhuman” more than a decade ago. in Scotland? That’s horrific! Is it because these prisons were built in the 19th century or before?

A different set of concerns was raised by the spread of high security prisons. Prisoners confined in such facilities spent an average of twenty-three hours a day in their cells, enduring extreme social isolation, enforced idleness, and extraordinarily limited recreational and educational opportunities. Prison authorities defended the use of high security facilities by asserting that they transferred only the most dangerous, disruptive, or discriminatorily criminals.

With few means to draw public attention to violations of prisoner’s rights or to secure improved conditions, prisoners around the world resorted to riot, hunger strikes, self-mutilation, and other forms of protest. Is it just the means that are few or is it also that public opinion is not too favourable to the issue?

On the other hand, statistics showed that a large proportion of the world’s prisoners had not been convicted of any crime, but were instead being detained pending trial. In third-world countries, unsentenced prisoners made up the majority of the prison population. Prisoners also continued to be held after the expiration of their sentences in some countries. In many countries, prisoners awaiting trial were confined together with sentenced prisoners.

Health care in most prisons was poor to non-existent. Even in developed countries, medical services for prisoners were often seriously inadequate. In April 2000, the British Medical Association warned that limited medical resources, medical staff shortages and poor prison management were contributing to a prison health care crisis in England and Wales.

Penal facilities around the world reported grossly disproportionate rates of HIV infection and of confirmed AIDS cases. November, 2000, government study estimated that the HIV infection rate among prisoners in Canada was at least 15 times higher than in the general population. In 2001, there was increasing awareness that hepatitis C (HCV) had joined HIV/AIDS as a major scourge of prisoners. Canada estimated that HCV was fifty times more prevalent among its prisoners than in the general population. In 2001, inmates brought legal actions against several U.S. states for failure to provide adequate HCV treatment. (Human Rights Watch)

Isn’t there also an issue of disproportion in terms of the prison populations especially in Industrialized countries? Where for instance in Canada more native people are represented, in the US hispanics and African-americans, etc.? It’s the same in Europe where some portions of the population make up a high percentage of prison inmates.

Physical abuse of prisoners by guards remained another problem; beatings were very common as it was an integral part of prison life in many prison systems. In the United States, there have been reports of physical violence including rape by inmates in countless prisons. Male inmate on inmate rape was also common in the USA, rape was a widespread problem facilitated by a lack of effective prevention and punishment systems as well as staff indifference. (Amnesty International)

Out of this, women prisoners suffered too. First of all they were vulnerable to custodial sexual abuse. The problem was very common in the United States, where male guards outnumbered women guards in many women’s prisons. In some nations, female prisoners were held together with male inmates, a situation that straightforwardly exposes them to sexual abuse and violence. (Kevin Marron - The Slammer p.18, 15-26)

Numerous local human rights groups around the world sought to obtain access to prisons, monitor prison conditions, and publicize the abuses they found. Government human rights officials, parliamentary commissions, and other official monitors also helped call attention to abuses. However, in many countries authorities permitted no outside surveillance of penal conditions.

At the regional level, prison monitoring mechanisms are still active. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture continues its important work, inspecting penal institutions in mainly developing countries. In addition, the committee also publishes reports on penal conditions in countries like Austria, UK, France and Greece.

The human rights violations in the world’s prisons have long been of concern to the United Nations, as demonstrated by the setting up of the “United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners”. Indeed, the international community’s failure to adopt these standards in practice, even while it has embraced them in theory, has inspired the United Nations most prisons effort.

For nearly a decade, a U.N. working group has been hammering out a draft treaty that would establish a U.N. subcommittee authorized to make regular visits to the places of detention in states, including prisons, jails and police lookups. As described in the draft treaty (conceived as an optional protocol to the convention against torture) the primary goal of the subcommittee would make detailed recommendations to state authorities regarding necessary improvements to their detention facilities.

NGO’s performed a wide variety of functions within the criminal justice system, and prisons in particular. This varies with the differing political, social, economic, and cultural situations in which NGOs find themselves. Experience, however, has shown that NGO’s play a crucial role in penal reform. Some are interested in policy matters and law reform, others provide services for prisoners before and after release, including material assistance and individual support, and still others are interested in education and religious matters.

The attitude of governments towards NGO’s that wish to be involved in prison work varies widely. In some countries, involvement from NGO’s is welcomed, while in others, particularly those involved in human rights are heavily discouraged. Prisons are still no go areas for NGO’s in some nations.

The first and most important function performed by NGO’s is the engagement in human rights work, and penal reform in particular. That is, of monitoring the situation in the criminal justice system as a whole. This is done by gathering, evaluating and disseminating information and, in the process, exposing human rights violations.

NGO’s undertake research in the penal systems of countries with a view to identifying relevant trends in penal reform, in legislation and in actual practice relative to normal norms and guidelines. Such research provides factual information and describes best practice.

While information is not in itself sufficient to halt any human rights abuses and cause effective change, it is a precondition for stopping abuses and a prerequisite for effective action towards penal reform. Once such information is made public, government is compelled to act. Exposure of incidents of torture and other human rights violations increases public awareness of the issues, and thus helps to reduce the level of abuse. NGO’s provide information on suspects/prisoners, and could also be of assistance if they are in need of help. (Penal Reform International)

The roles of NGO’s have been big when taking in account the prison and other detention issues in different countries. In April 17, well known Russian human rights defenders and public officials created an initiative group called the Common Cause, which also included representatives from active human rights organizations. The intention of the group was to make public all instances of human rights violation, political persecution, torture, and illegal arrests, and support initiatives directed at legal enlightenment.

Common Cause also intended to protect peoples rights to dignified payment of their labour, legislation into harmony with the main provisions of the Declaration, and promote judicial reforms.

In 1995 in Serpukhov, a city near Moscow, an organization called SOPPU was formed. The range of its activities includes legal and humanitarian aid to prisoners, protecting human rights in custody. SOPPU is a small organization with very limited resources. Its activities, however, are renown far beyond Serpukhov. SOPPU gets letters from prisons and camps from all over Russia. In 1997, SOPPU received a total of 10,000 letters. The reason the Society is so popular is that its members try to help everyone who asks for help. Reference?

The Societys short-term experience in legal matters was set down in the book “How a Prisoner Can Protect His Rights”. Its first edition was released in 16. The book became very popular among prisoners. It gives detail on how a prisoner can defend his own rights. What is most valuable is that the book offers detailed advice on how a prisoner can file a civil suit. Until recent times, people regarded courts as punitive agencies, and prisoners would only appeal to courts for review of their sentences. The book contains sample complaints, and addresses of NGO’s that deal with prisoners problems.

(Moscow center for prison reform.)

In conclusion, prison conditions are one of the few conditions that are similar everywhere in the world when it is compared between the first world and the third world countries. Although there aren’t a great number of NGO’s that deal with prison issues globally, NGO’s still perform a crucial role within the penal justice system.

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