The Human Rights Watch Prison Project, established in 1988, cuts across the five regional divisions of Human Rights Watch to focus on a single issue: prison conditions worldwide. The Prison Project has investigated conditions for sentenced prisoners, pretrial detainees and those held in police lock-ups. It examines prison conditions for all prisoners, not just political prisoners.
Of the countries where investigations have been undertaken, the Prison Project has been able to secure access to prisons in about half. The Project has a set of self-imposed rules for prison visits: the investigators undertake such visits only when they and not the authorities can suggest institutions to be visited, when they can be confident that they will be allowed to talk privately with inmates of their choice, and when they can gain access to an entire facility. These rules are adopted to avoid being shown model institutions or their most presentable parts. When no access is possible, reporting is based on interviews with former prisoners, lawyers and prison experts, and on documentary evidence.
In previous years, the Project conducted studies in Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland and Turkey. In 1990 the Project sent missions to Egypt, India, Israel and Jamaica. In Israel and Jamaica, the delegations were allowed to visit prisons; in Egypt and India, no such permission was granted. In addition, follow-up missions to Czechoslovakia and Poland were conducted in 1990, with access to prisons in both countries. An examination of conditions in a range of US prisons was also begun in 1990, and additional investigation is planned for 1991.
In addition to pressing for improvements in prison conditions in each country on which it reports, the Prison Project plans to use the findings of its studies as part of an effort to place the problem of prison conditions on the international human rights agenda -- so that a government's claims to respect human rights will be assessed in part on the basis of how it treats all of its prisoners. As a first step, the results of the European and US studies will be presented during the human rights conference in Moscow scheduled for the fall of 1991.
The work of the Prison Project is guided by the Prison Advisory Committee, whose chairman is American University Law Professor Herman Schwartz. Other members are: Nan Aron, Vivien Berger, Haywood Burns, Alejandro Garro, William Hellerstein, Edward Koren, Sheldon Krantz, Benjamin Malcolm, Diane Orentlicher, Norman Rosenberg, David Rothman, Rita Simon, and Clarence Sundram. The director of the Project is Joanna Weschler.