THE PRISON PROJECT
The Prison Project of Human Rights Watch was formed in 1988 to focus international attention on prison conditions worldwide. Its work cuts across the five regional divisions of the organization. The project investigates conditions for sentenced prisoners, without limiting its work to prisoners held for political reasons.
In addition to pressing for improvement in prison conditions in particular countries that are studied, the project seeks to place the problem of prison conditions on the international human rights agenda. We believe that a government's claim to respect human rights should be assessed in part on the basis of how it treats its prisoners. Our experience has repeatedly shown that a number of democratic countries that are rarely or never a focus of human rights investigations are in fact guilty of serious human rights violations within their prisons.
In 1991, in an effort to call for increased international attention to prison conditions, the project prepared a document outlining prison conditions in several of the countries participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (csce) and released it at the opening of a csce meeting on human rights held in Moscow. The project is currently preparing a worldwide study of prison conditions, which we plan to release at the time of the U.N.-sponsored World Conference on Human Rights in June 1993.
In previous years, the project conducted studies and published reports on prison conditions in Brazil, Czechoslovakia, India, Indonesia, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Jamaica, Mexico, Poland, the former Soviet Union, Turkey, and the United States (including a separate newsletter on Puerto Rico).
In 1992, the project released reports on prison conditions in Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The reports on Spain and the United Kingdom were released in those countries (in Spain, in a Spanish-language version) and generated substantial media attention there.
In February, the project conducted an investigation of Egyptian prisons. The results will be published in a report, expected in early 1993.
In August 1992, the project began an investigation of prison conditions in South Africa. Among the prisons visited was one in the homeland of Bophuthatswana. An additional trip in 1993 is planned to complete the investigation. In the meantime, the project was asked to provide testimony by an attorney representing inmates in a class-action suit challenging prison conditions in one of the institutions visited. The project filed an affidavit describing its findings on that institution.
In October, the project conducted an emergency mission to Brazil, in response to the news that at least 111 inmates were killed by police in a Sao Paulo prison in the course of a prison disturbance. A newsletter outlining the findings was published in the aftermath, in English and Portuguese, and Americas Watch joined with two other organizations in filing a formal complaint against Brazil with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Both the mission and the report received unprecedented media exposure in Brazil.
In 1992, in meetings with Congressional staff members and in a letter to the Attorney General, the project continued to express its concern over the proliferation of super maximum-security institutions (known as "maxi-maxis") in the United States. The project also addressed a letter to the Attorney General concerning a prisoner who appears to have received punitive treatment in prisons for political reasons.
The project has coordinated Human Rights Watch's efforts in opposition to the death penalty. In 1992, in conjunction with three other groups, including two medical organizations, the project has undertaken a study of medical involvement in executions. We hope that by challenging this involvement as a violation of medical ethics we will open a fruitful new avenue for curtailing use of the death penalty.
As a result of the project's investigation of prison conditions in the former Soviet Union, the project was approached by a member of the Russian parliament seeking advice on reforming the country's prisons.
The Prison Project has been able to secure access to penal institutions in more than half of the countries in which investigations have been undertaken. The project has a self-imposed set of rules for prison visits: investigators undertake visits only when they, not the authorities, can suggest institutions to be visited, when the investigators can be confident that they will be allowed to talk privately with inmates of their choice, and when the investigators can gain access to the entire facility to be examined. These rules are adopted to avoid being shown model prisons or the most presentable parts of institutions. When no access is possible, reporting is based on interviews with former prisoners, prisoners on furloughs, relatives of inmates, lawyers, prison experts and prison staff, and on documentary evidence. Prison investigations are usually conducted by teams composed of a staff member and a member of the Prison Advisory Committee, which guides the work of the project. Occasionally, the project invites an outside expert to participate in a particular investigation.
The Prison Advisory Committee is chaired by Herman Schwartz, of the American University Law School. Other members are Nan Aron, Vivian Berger, Haywood Burns, Alejandro Garro, William Hellerstein, Edward Koren, Sheldon Krantz, Benjamin Malcolm, Diane Orentlicher, Norman Rosenberg, David Rothman and Clarence Sundram. The director of the project is Joanna Weschler. Anthony Levintow is the associate.