Overcrowding and substandard facilities, as well as poorly trained staff, contribute to abysmal prison conditions in many countries in the region. Ill-treatment and the excessive use of force by prison officials have also been reported in many countries in recent years, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The most striking problem in the prisons of the former Soviet Union, particularly those of Belarus, Kazakstan, and Russia, is their high incidence of tuberculosis. In March 1998, the ICRC announced that among the prisons of the Commonwealth of Independent States the incidence of tuberculosis was five to fifty times greater than their national averages. The emergence of multi-drug resistant (MDR) strains of the disease in some prison populations was especially alarming.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the Council of Europe's official prison monitoring body, inspected penal institutions in twelve countries in 1998, including those of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Germany, and Sweden. In 1997, the CPT visited prisons and jails in eleven countries, including those of Turkey, Spain, and Estonia.

As of September 1999, a total of forty-one countries belonged to the CPT: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.


The ICRC reported in January 1998 that it had registered over 7,800 prisoners in eighty-one detention centers for the whole of Afghanistan. In September 1998, it reported difficulty in obtaining access to detainees held by the Taliban in the town of Mazar-i-Sharif.


The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights reported that some 65,000 persons were imprisoned in Belarus in 1997, making the country's rate of incarceration one of the highest in the world. Approximately 10,000 of these inmates suffered from tuberculosis.


Belgium's prison system suffers from overcrowding and violence. In 1997, Belgium confined some 8,200 inmates in prisons whose total capacity was 6,900 places. The CPT, during its 1997 visit, found problems of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and intimidation in the prisons of Mons, Lantin, and Saint-Gilles. It also found that the living conditions of A and C wings of Mons prison were "absolutely miserable," constituting inhuman and degrading treatment of the inmates confined in them.

In August 1998, the Ministry of Justice reportedly launched a pilot project to allow conjugal visits to certain inmates.

The following report (in French) provides information on Belgian prisons:


In December 1998, the CPT announced its plans to visit Bulgaria in 1999 and inspect some of the country's penal institutions.

The following link gives information relating to Bulgarian prisons:


In its 1997 visits to two Czech prisons, the CPT found that overcrowding was widespread.

The following link gives information relating to prisons in the Czech Republic:


The CPT's report on its 1992 visit to Finland included the following observations:

  [N]umerous allegations were heard of frequent and severe acts of violence between inmates in Helsinki Central Prison. Such attacks seemed most often to take the form of beatings, with occasional incidents of slashing the face or body of a victim with a knife (the blade of which might be partially bound with tape in order to reduce the chances of the injury proving fatal). It was also stated by prisoners, and confirmed by staff, that a variety of drugs (including cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin) were available in the prison. Those who incurred drug-related debts to other detainees were said to be most at risk of attack. The delegation were told that inter-prisoner attacks sometimes went undetected by staff and that, when they were discovered, little effective action was taken. Members of staff spoken to by the delegation recognised that inter-prisoner violence was a significant problem . . . . The high number of prisoners in the establishment who were in solitary confinement at their own request was further evidence of the extent of the above-mentioned problem. According to the staff, there were on average forty to fifty prisoners (i.e. approximately 15% of the population) seeking such protection at any one time.

The following links provide information on Finnish prisons:


During 1998, the Ministry of Internal Affairs continued to ignore calls from international monitors and the Ministry of Justice to transfer both pretrial and post-conviction facilities to the latter’s authority. Draft legislation on penitentiary reform proposed earlier by the parliament would have transferred post-conviction facilities to the Ministry of Justice, but the government delayed in giving it final approval.

Visiting international monitors reported to Human Rights Watch that although conditions in the notorious Fifth Investigative Isolator had improved, overcrowding in other pretrial detention facilities and prisons continued to be a serious concern. Local monitors reported that there was little attempt to reform the rampant corruption and poor conditions in prisons and labor colonies. In August 1998 a prisoner in the maximum security Detention Facility No. 14, Petr Gelbakhiani, was stabbed by another inmate, Loti Kobalia, while prison guards failed to react to the attack. Gelbakhiani claimed that after the attack, prison authorities attempted to coerce him into stating that he had attempted suicide.

In March 1997, the U.N. Human Rights Committee reviewed Geogia's human rights record, recommending that state authorities take urgent steps to improve prison conditions. The committee stated that it was "deeply concerned at the disastrous prison situation," finding that "crowding, poor sanitary conditions and lack of medical care result in a high rate of infectious disease and a very alarming mortality rate, in particular among juvenile detainees."

Elena Tevdoradze, chair of the parliamentary subcommittee for penitentiary reform, reportedly suffered several death threats in connection with her work on behalf of prisoners, according to Droni (Time) of September 4-6, 1997.


In May 1997, the CPT visited Greece and inspected a number of police stations and prisons, including the Korydallos Prison Complex, in Athens.

The following link provides information on Greek prisons:


During its summer 1998 session, the U.N Human Rights Committtee called on Italy to ameliorate overcrowding in the country's prisons.

The following links provide information on Italian prisons:


At a January 1997 seminar, government official advanced a perverse argument for retaining the death penalty, saying that prison conditions were so atrocious that few prisoners would survive a long sentence anyway. In July the Interior Minister was quoted as saying 1,122 people had died in prison as of that date, 770 of them from tuberculosis. This was roughly the same level as in 1996, when 2,531 prisoners died, according to government officials. The Interior Minister also said that Kazakhstan had 83,000 prisoners in July 1997, a figure that included 15,000 released on parole. Officials said one in five prisoners had tuberculosis.

The following link gives further information on prison conditions in Kazakhstan:


Prison conditions in general remained abysmal as lack of sanitation and significant overcrowding threatened the health of inmates.


From February 7 to 11, 1997, prison inmates in nine Romanian cities went on a hunger strike to protest poor conditions within the prisons. For the most part the protests were peaceful, but some violence did erupt.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) last visited Romania in September and October 1995. In its report on the visit, published in February 1998, the CPT stated that "the most critical problem the authorities are confronted with is overcrowding: about 50,000 prisoners in facilities having an official capacity of 14,000 places."


Second only to Rwanda in the proportion of its population that is behind bars, Russia has some 700 prisoners per 100,000 residents. In 1998, conditions in Russia’s severely overcrowded prisons continued to be torturous. Defendants often spend excessively long times in pre-trial detention, sometimes up to four years or more, due to delays in the criminal investigation process and especially in the courts.

Complying with Council of Europe conditions, the Russian government transferred the prison system from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. Minister of Justice Pavel Krashenninikov announced plans to alleviate overcrowding by limiting terms in pretrial detention to one year, but in the midst of the political and economic crisis, it was unclear whether these plan would be realized.

According to figures provided by the Ministry of Interior to the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, on July 1, 1997, some 275,567 people were being held in detention centers intended for a maximum of 182,358 detainees. (The total prison population in Russia as of July 1 was 1,017,848.) Sanitary conditions were extremely poor, as was medical care. Increasing numbers of detainees and prison inmates suffered from tuberculosis, which caused the death of seventy-four per 100,000 prisoners in 1994, and 178 in 1995. On July 1, according to official figures, 67,151 convicted prisoners were ill with the disease. Overall, 676 of every 100,000 prisoners died in 1994 and 720 in 1995.

In November 1996, the U.N. Committee against Torture considered Russia's second periodic report. The committee expressed concern at widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment of suspects, persons in custody, and in the army. It also deplored the absence of effective machinery for prompt examination of complaints about ill-treatment and the serious overcrowding in Russian prisons. The Committee urged the Russian authorities to improve conditions in prisons radically.

The CPT visited Russian penal facilities in November 1998 and plans additional such visits in 1999.

The following articles provide further information on Russia's penal facilities:

Additional information on prisoners in Russia:


In April 1997, the CPT visited several penal institutions in Spain, including three immigration detention centers and one prison. At Ceuta Prison, it found "severe overcrowding," few work, educational or recreational opportunities, and many dilapidated cells. It concluded that " the great majority of prisoners [at Ceuta Prison] led a monotonous and purposeless existence, acquiring and taking drugs being their main concern."

The following news articles and CPT reports provide information on prison conditions in Spain:


Prison conditions deteriorated in 1998 when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), citing reasons including misuse of food rations distributed since June 1996, halted its emergency nutritional program launched in 1996. Soon afterwards, the death rate among the country’s roughly 7,000 prisoners increased.

In April 1997, security forces stormed a prison in Khojand to quell a riot, killing at least twenty-four and wounding thirty-five others; unconfirmed reports indicated a substantially higher number of casualties.


Prisons remained poorly administered and underfunded in 1998. The prison administration and prisoners clashed over prisoners’ legitimate demands for improved conditions and, at other times, their quest for political control, but no serious structural reform was achieved.

A parliamentary human rights commission launched investigations at four southeastern prisons, at the Istanbul Women and Juvenile Prison, at several detention centers and at police precincts. The commission reported in April that inmates were tortured by various methods, including reverse hanging by the arms, beating the soles of feet, and the use of pressurized water and electric shocks. Commission members themselves reported having seen evidence of torture on prisoners and in detention rooms. Commission members described finding tools, such as manual electric generators, wooden sticks, metal pipes and truck tires, that had initially been hidden from them. The investigating parliamentarians described as "atrocious" the conditions at the Juvenile Prison, where an undercover journalist from the mainstream media had witnessed during regular visiting hours seven or eight guards beating a child.

As of 1997, Turkey's 562 prisons held 56,000 prisoners, including 9,241 security detainees. The Justice and Interior Ministries' split jurisdiction over prisons, lax oversight, and poorly trained and easily bribed warders (gardiyan) further exacerbated an already explosive situation. Convicts were housed in large open wards, which allowed prisoners, especially in political cases, to enforce discipline and punishment -- including executions -- among themselves. There were credible reports of the gendarmerie beating prisoners while transporting them to court or to the hospital. In suppressing prison unrest, the gendarmerie often used excessive and deadly force. Six inmates charged with criminal offenses died in July 1997 during a riot in Istanbul's Metris prison. Turkish television broadcast footage of gendarmerie brutally beating inmates with rifle butts and batons while attempting to restore order. While it is still unclear whether security forces or prisoners were responsible for the six deaths, Yucel Sayman, the chair of the Istanbul bar who investigated the incident, put ultimate blame on "the order of vested interests in the prisons."

The following are links to information on penal institutions in Turkey:


In an apparent attempt to alleviate overcrowding in the prisons, the president reportedly released at least 5,000 prisoners in two amnesties in December 1996 and June 1997.


In its 1995 comments on Ukraine's human rights report, the U.N. Human Rights Committee expressed concern over the country's prison conditions, stating that they violate international standards. The committee was especially troubled by the level of prison overcrowding.

The following links provide further information on Ukrainian prisons:


In September 1998, responding to significant growth in inmate numbers, a key parliamentary committee declared that alternatives to incarceration should be relied upon much more frequently. The Commons home affairs select committee released a report stating that community sentences, home monitoring, and other options should be explored, endorsing estimates by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that one in four inmates need not be in prison.

The following news articles provide information on prisons in the United Kingdom:

The following are links to further information relating to U.K. prisons:


Prison conditions continued to be atrocious in 1997; former inmates and their relatives described overcrowding, unchecked disease, and violence by wardens as some of the problems in the prisons. The death of Kahraman Hamidov, a member of a Muslim-oriented popular movement, from tuberculosis in prison on June 12 suggested appalling conditions of detention.

[Back to the Human Rights Watch Prison Conditions Page]

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