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UN torture expert urges prison modernisation for social rehabilitation and resilience to environmental threats and pandemics

08 March 2024

GENEVA (8 March 2024) – A UN expert today called on States to review prison management practices, procedures and policies to ensure compliance with human rights standards, as countries grapple with the need to adapt to environmental challenges and the looming threat of eventual pandemics.

“Far too many people are imprisoned, for too long, in severely overcrowded facilities. The link between poverty and incarceration is clear – people from disadvantaged or marginalised communities are far more likely to be imprisoned than other socio-economic groups,” said Alice Jill Edwards, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

In a wide-reaching report to the Human Rights Council, Edwards examined recurring challenges in prison management, as well as emerging issues that demand strategic planning such as climate change and future health pandemics.

“Significant challenges facing prisons are found in some form in almost every country,” the expert said. “Prisons are under pressure from too many demands, insufficient resources and inadequate staffing, and as a result conditions are often unsafe and inhumane.”

The Special Rapporteur assessed the different needs of specific segments of the prison population, including female detainees, young offenders and indigenous peoples. Emerging areas of research included the complexities of accommodating high levels of neurodiversity within prison populations and the menopausal health needs of female detainees.

“Prisons should be places where people are offered a chance of rehabilitation, so that in time they can reintegrate into society,” Edwards said.

The expert found that many prisoners serve long sentences in deplorable conditions, with limited access to education or vocational skills. “The widespread neglect of prisons and prisoners in countries around the world has a significant social impact, exacerbating poverty and the likelihood of recidivism, and ultimately failing to keep the public safe,” she said.

“I urge States to rethink their criminal and social justice policies and priorities,” the Special Rapporteur said. “Internationally agreed standards for the protection of all persons deprived of liberty exist. However, there are still important gaps in the standards and their implementation.”

Edwards also presented a report on her country visit to Ukraine in September 2023. During the visit, she reviewed the progress of national investigations and prosecutions of allegations of crimes of torture, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She also assessed the conditions and standards of treatment of Russian prisoners of war and other conflict-related detainees detained in Ukraine.

“I believe that the volume of credible allegations of torture and other inhumane acts committed by Russian forces and other associated actors against Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war constitutes a policy of war,” the expert said. “These grievous crimes appear to be neither random nor incidental.”

The Special Rapporteur noted her availability to conduct a further technical visit to Ukraine, focusing on sexual torture investigations.

Dr. Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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