Prison walls – locking prisoners in and society out

After five years as the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, says one of the most surprising and distressing of his experiences has been the realization of the appalling conditions endured by the majority of the world’s prisoners and detainees. “In many countries,” he says, “I was simply shocked by the way human beings are treated in detention. As soon as they are behind bars, detainees lose most of their human rights and often are simply forgotten by the outside world.”

A detention centre in Jamaica - © OHCHR Photo/Claudia de la FuenteWith only a few months to go before his mandate expires, Nowak has produced a global study for the Human Rights Council detailing his experiences and major concerns and one of the most troubling, he says, is the condition of prisoners, those who have been sentenced and those yet to be charged and tried.

The detainees described in the report are from the most disadvantaged corners of society – the poor, minorities, drug users or aliens and right at the bottom of the prison hierarchy itself, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and diseases, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-gender persons. These people, Nowak says, suffer double or triple discrimination.

Police lock-ups in many places are particularly bad. The Special Rapporteur describes cells that are dirty, crowded and without adequate light and fresh air: cells with no beds, mattresses or blankets, no toilets apart from a hole or bucket, no toilet paper, water or food. Many of the detainees are kept in these conditions, he says, for many days, weeks or months, and in some cases, even years.

In correctional institutions, detainees generally fare better, according to the report. However, many institutions are severely overcrowded with insufficient resources and staff, and in many countries long-term inmates are confined to their cells most of the time. In one prison visited by the Special Rapporteur, three detainees were locked into tiny metal boxes designed for one person. “The noise, smell, heat and violence in those cages was unbearable even for the prison wardens and absolutely intolerable for the prisoners, some of whom had survived many months or even years under these inhuman conditions”, he says.

The Special Rapporteur says the numbers of pre-trial detainees are, in his view, one of the most reliable indicators of the state of a country’s judicial system. “If more than 50 percent of all detainees, and in some countries up to 80 percent, are in pre-trial detention, then something is wrong,” he says. In one country the Special Rapporteur recommended the immediate release of 20,000 prisoners because they had already spent more time in pre-trial custody than the maximum possible penalty in relation to the crime of which they were suspected.

And Nowak says the way societies treat persons deprived of their liberty in general, is one of the best indicators for the human rights culture in any country. Although places of detention in most countries he visited were “simply appalling” Nowak does point to Denmark and Greenland, where the conditions are exemplary and programmes in prison are aimed at rehabilitation. The Government applies the “principle of normalization”, a policy that aims to make life in prison resemble as much as possible life on the outside. “Needless to say,” Novak says, “such a policy leads to a much lower rate of recidivism than the purely punitive policy of locking convicted criminals away”.

“In my opinion, persons deprived of liberty are among the most vulnerable and forgotten human beings in our society… Prison walls serve the double purpose of locking prisoners in and society out,” Nowak concludes. The Special Rapporteur wants to see prisons opened up to scrutiny by public and independent bodies. He is convinced he says of “the urgent need for the United Nations to consider drafting a special Convention on the Rights of Detainees.”

6 April 2010