Unchecked outbursts of prison violence frequently violate prisoners' right to life. Last August, at least twenty-nine prisoners were killed in a remote jungle facility in Venezuela, leading the country's Justice Ministry, charged with prison administration, to promise reforms, and its Public Ministry to conduct an extensive investigation of the incident's
Inmate signaling through feed slot  
An inmate in Brazil signals to visitors through his feed slot
causes. The Tajikistan government, earlier in the year, chose to cover up an even bloodier prison massacre. Although information about the events is scarce, reports indicate that in mid-April the Tajik security forces stormed a prison in the northern city of Khujand, killing over a hundred prisoners. Earlier that week, inmates had rioted and taken several guards hostage to protest life-threatening detention conditions. Ignoring Human Rights Watch's request for information and its calls for a thorough and impartial investigation of the incident, the Tajik government has apparently taken no action to punish those responsible for the deaths.

In Morocco's Oukacha prison, twenty-two prisoners were burned alive in September 1997; they had been crammed together in a cell reportedly built to hold eight. The cause of the fire was not announced, but the country's Justice Ministry acknowledged that overcrowding might have played a role in the deaths.

The most common cause of death in prison is disease, often the predictable result of severe overcrowding, malnutrition, unhygienic conditions, and lack of medical care. A special commission of inquiry, appointed after the 1995 death of a prominent businessman in India's high-security Tihar Central Jail, reported in September 1997 that the 10,000 inmates held in that institution endured serious health hazards, including overcrowding, "appalling" sanitary facilities, and a shortage of medical staff. Similar conditions prevail in the prisons of the former Soviet Union, where tuberculosis continues its comeback. Russia's prosecutor general announced in March 1997 that about 2,000 inmates had died of tuberculosis in the previous year. In Kazakstan, the disease, including drug resistant strains, has reached epidemic proportions. AIDS also plagues many prison populations.

Inadequate supervision by guards, easy access to weapons, lack of separation of different categories of prisoners, and fierce competition for basic necessities encourage inmate-on-inmate abuse in many penal facilities. In extreme cases -- as in certain Venezuelan prisons with one guard for every 150 prisoners, and an underground trade in knives, guns, even grenades -- prisoners kill other prisoners with impunity. Rape, extortion, and involuntary servitude are among the other abuses frequently suffered by inmates at the bottom of the prison hierarchy.

In contrast, powerful inmates in some facilities in Colombia, India,

In Venezuela in 1996, Human Rights Watch researchers saw scores of prisoners with bruised and bleeding buttocks, attesting to the wholesale nature of the punishment meted out by members of the military force guarding the prisons. The infirmaries of several prisons held prisoners who had been badly beaten or shot by members of the Guard.

and Mexico, among others, enjoy cellular phones, rich diets, and comfortable lodgings. As these examples suggest, guard corruption is rampant in many prisons around the world. Indeed, in Indonesia, two prisoners reportedly escaped in September 1997 after bribing guards to bring them to a brothel.

Besides corruption, physical abuse by guards is a chronic problem. Some countries continue to permit corporal punishment and the routine use of leg irons, fetters, shackles, and chains. The heavy bar fetters used in Pakistani prisons, for example, turn simple movements such as walking into a painful ordeal. In many prison systems, unwarranted beatings are so common as to be an integral part of prison life. Women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to custodial sexual abuse. In the aftermath of prison riots or escapes, physical abuse is even more predictable, and typically much more severe.

Overcrowding--prevalent in almost every country for which information is available--is at the root of many of the worst abuses. The problem is often most severe in smaller pretrial detention facilities, where, in many countries, inmates are packed together with no space to stretch or move around. In some of Rwanda's cachots (local lockups), where a large proportion of the country's approximately 120,000 detainees are held, overcrowding is so acute as to be life-threatening. In Rwanda and elsewhere, even large prisons were crowded far beyond their capacity. Panama's Modelo prison, for example, held over ten times the number of prisoners it was built to hold. So notorious were its conditions that, in a symbolic choice of dates, the government finally demolished it on International Human Rights Day in December 1996.

The Modelo prison was built in 1917, exemplifying another common problem: that of old, antiquated, and physically decaying prison facilities. Nineteenth-century prisons needing constant upkeep remain in use in some countries, including the United States, Mexico, Russia, and the United Kingdom, although even many modern facilities are in severe disrepair due to lack of maintenance. Notably, many prisons lack a functional system of plumbing. In Hong Kong, one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced places in the world, prisoners in some older facilities have to "slop out," that is, to defecate in plastic buckets that they were periodically allowed to empty. In Venezuela, inmates in parts of some facilities do not even get buckets; they resort to defecating in newspapers that they throw out the window.

Conditions in many prisons are, in short, so deficient as to constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, violating article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Their specific failings might also be enumerated under the more detailed provisions of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. A widely known set of prison standards, the Standard Minimum Rules describe "the minimum conditions which are accepted as suitable by the United Nations." Although the Standard Minimum Rules have been integrated into the prison laws and regulations of many countries, few if any prison systems observe all of their prescriptions in practice.

[Back to the HRW Prison Conditions Page]

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