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The number of people incarcerated in prisons, jails, and other places of detention around the world continued to rise during 1998, with few countries reporting decreases in their inmate populations. The resulting high levels of overcrowding—since rarely did new construction keep pace with the growth in inmate numbers—encouraged a range of chronic abuses. In some countries, mass killings, large-scale prisoner protests, or scathing official reports on prison deficiencies drew media attention to these abuses. More commonly, however, human rights violations against prisoners drew little public notice. Particularly in countries plagued by high rates of violent crime, too often reports of violence against prisoners, inhuman prison conditions, and egregious levels of overcrowding met with apathy and indifference. With the public primarily concerned about keeping prisoners locked up rather than about the conditions in which prisoners were confined, little progress was made toward remedying these problems.

In many countries, the public’s tendency to ignore prison abuses was reinforced by high levels of official secrecy. By barring human rights groups, journalists, and other outside observers nearly all access to their penal facilities, prison officials sought to keep even egregious abuses hidden from public view. In Brazil, for example, prison authorities in the northeast barred researchers from both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from interviewing prisoners who had witnessed a mass killing. Several countries, moreover, refused to disclose the most basic facts about their prisons—to the extent of keeping inmate numbers secret—while prohibiting all outside scrutiny. In the most extreme cases, including China and Cuba, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was barred from providing basic humanitarian relief to prisoners. In September, the ICRC reported difficulties in obtaining access to detainees held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Conditions of Confinement

Unchecked outbursts of violence continued to violate prisoners’ right to life. In Colombia, an April riot at La Picota prison left fifteen inmates dead. The following month, at least twenty-two inmates were killed in a gang clash at the Professor Barreto Campelo prison in Pernambuco, Brazil. The failure of prison authorities to take reasonable measures to prevent or control such outbreaks violated international human rights norms.

Inadequate supervision by guards, easy access to weapons and drugs, failure to separate different categories of prisoners, and fierce competition for basic necessities encouraged inmate-on-inmate abuses in many penal facilities. Inmates at the bottom of the prison hierarchy frequently fell victim to extortion, intimidation, rape, and other forms of violence. In extreme cases—as in certain Venezuelan prisons, with one guard for every 150 prisoners and an underground trade in dangerous weapons—prisoners killed other prisoners with impunity. Among the weapons discovered in a late September series of searches of Caracas prisons, for example, were 115 firearms, three fragmentation grenades, and six molotov cocktails. Murders, sometimes of more than one inmate, occurred with almost motonous regularity in the prisons of Venezuela. Six inmates were killed in a February incident there; four were killed in a March incident; another four were killed in an April incident; seven were killed in a May incident, and five were killed in a July incident.

Prison death rates were often far higher than corresponding numbers from outside the prison context, and in some instances were shockingly high. A human rights organization in Burundi reported in May, for example, that some 10 percent of inmates in Muyinga and Ngozi prisons had died during the first four months of the year. While violence was a factor in some penal facilities, disease—often the predictable result of severe overcrowding, malnutrition, unhygienic conditions, and lack of medical care—remained the most common cause of death in prison. Food shortages in Zambian prisons in July, for example, combined with terrible overcrowding, created ideal conditions for the spread of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis, in particular, continued to ravage prison populations around the world. According to India’s National Human Rights Commission, 70 percent of the country’s inmate deaths were attributable to the disease. The spread of TB was especially worrisome in Russia, in light of the country’s enormous prison population and the increasing prevalence of multi-drug resistant (MDR) strains of the disease. One of out every hundred inmates was reported to have active tuberculosis, with some 12 percent of sick inmates being affected by MDR strains, constituting a serious threat to public health. The epidemic of MDR strains was not confined to Russia but instead swept through prisons all over the former Soviet Union. In March, the ICRC announced that among the prisons of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) the incidence of this serious infectious disease was five to fifty times greater than their national averages.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic also struck prison populations with particular severity, with penal facilities around the world reporting grossly disproportionate rates of HIV infection and of confirmed AIDS cases. In Brazil, for example, a late 1997 study concluded that some 20 percent of the country’s inmate population was HIV-positive. Because the onset of AIDS left prisoners more vulnerableto tuberculosis, the two diseases often occurred together. To raise awareness of the epidemic and of how to respond to it in an effective way, the first-ever International Conference on HIV/AIDS in African Prisons was held in Senegal in February; prison authorities and nongovernmental organizations from around the continent attended.

Physical abuse by guards remained another chronic problem. Some countries continued 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, turned simple movements such as walking into painful ordeals. In many prison systems, unwarranted beatings were so common as to be an integral part of prison life. Women prisoners were particularly vulnerable to custodial sexual abuse ( see section on Women's Human Rights.) In the aftermath of prison riots or escapes, physical abuse was especially predictable, and typically much more severe. After a December 1997 rebellion in a northeastern Brazilian prison, for example, seven of twenty-three escaping prisoners were killed by military police, at least two of them having been deliberately executed.

Extortion by prison staff, or its less aggressive corollary, guard corruption, was common in prisons around the world. Given the substantial power that guards exercised over inmates, these problems were predictable, but the low salaries that guards were generally paid severely aggravated the situation. Frequently, therefore, inmates resorted to bribes in exchange for contraband or special treatment. Powerful inmates in some facilities in Colombia, India, and Mexico, among others, enjoyed cellular phones, rich diets, and comfortable lodgings. Such advantages were often matched by the disadvantages accruing to their less fortunate brethren, who were, for example, provided poorer quality food and more cramped living conditions than they would otherwise have received.

Overcrowding—prevalent in almost every country for which information was available—was at the root of many of the worst abuses. In Honduras, for example, some 10,000 inmates were squeezed into prisons whose total capacity was reported to be 3,800. The problem was often most severe in smaller pretrial detention facilities, where, in many countries, inmates were 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 130,000 detainees were held, overcrowding was so acute as to be life-threatening. In Rwanda, as in many other countries, inmates suffered long stays in these dreadful conditions. Human Rights Watch visited jammed police lockups in São Paulo, Brazil, designed for extremely short periods of detention, where inmates had been held for up to six years.

Another common problem was governments’ continued reliance on old, antiquated, and physically decaying prison facilities. Nineteenth-century prisons needing constant upkeep remained in use in a number of countries, including the United States, Mexico, Russia, and the United Kingdom, although even many modern facilities were in severe disrepair due to lack of maintenance. Notably, some prisons lacked a functional system of plumbing, leaving prisoners to “slop out” their cells, that is, to defecate in buckets that they periodically emptied.

A different set of concerns was raised by the spread of ultra-modern “super-maximum” security prisons. Originally prevalent in the United States, where politicians and state corrections authorities persisted in their politically popular quest for more “austere” prison conditions, the supermax model was increasingly copied in other countries in 1998. Prisoners confined in such facilities spent an average of twenty-three hours a day in their cells, enduring extreme social isolation, enforced idleness, and extraordinarily limited recreational and educational opportunities. While prison authorities defended the use of super-maximum security facilities by asserting that they held only the most dangerous, disruptive, or escape-prone inmates, few safeguards existed to prevent other prisoners from being arbitrarily or discriminatorily transferred to such facilities. In Britain, recognizing these concerns, the High Court agreed to hear a legal challenge to the selection procedures employed in sending prisoners to these high-security units. In South Africa, similarly, the harsh conditions and malleable transfer criteria of the notorious C-Max prison received critical scrutiny from human rights advocates.

Fiscal constraints and competing budget priorities were to blame for prison deficiencies in some countries, but, as the supermax example suggests, harsh prison conditions were sometimes purposefully imposed. In Peru, notably, confinement at the recently constructed Challapalca prison, located at more than 14,000 feet above sea level, needlessly endangered inmates’ health.

Conditions in many prisons were, 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 could 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 observed all of their prescriptions in practice.

Aging penal facilities were, in some countries, matched by old and outdated prison laws. In India as well as Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the prisons continued to be administered under nineteenth-century legal rules originally established by colonial governments. Such antiquated prison rules frequently embodied obsolete notions of the way in which prisoners ought to be treated. Japan’s prison law exemplified this problem. Adopted in 1908, the law contained little acknowledgment of prisoners’ claim to rights.

Unsentenced Prisoners

Even those unsympathetic to convicted criminals and entirely skeptical of the idea of rehabilitation had reason to be concerned about the inhumane treatment of prisoners. Although comprehensive figures were impossible to obtain, the available statistics showed that an impressive numbers of the world’s prisoners had not been convicted of any crime, but were instead being preventively detained at some stage of the trial process. In countries as varied as Bangladesh, Burundi, Chad, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Rwanda, Uganda, and Venezuela, unsentenced prisoners made up the majority of the prison population. Indeed, some 90 percent of Honduran, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan inmates were unsentenced.

Worse, such detainees were in many instances held for years before being judged not guilty of the crime with which they werecharged. In Venezuela, for example, the Ministry of Justice reported in May that the prison system held 1,531 unsentenced inmates who had each spent more than three years in confinement. In March, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission documented the cases of three prisoners preventively detained since 1991 without trial. Such prisoners were, in some countries, even incarcerated for periods longer than the sentences they would have served had they been found guilty of the crime for which they were held. In August, for example, an Indian newspaper ran a story tracing the case histories of several such inmates, including one who had spent eight years detained on charges of forging bail applications, an offense punishable by a maximum seven-year sentence.

With few means to draw public attention to violations of their rights, prisoners around the world frequently resorted to hunger strikes, self-mutilation, rioting, and other forms of protest. In Ecuador, a number of prisoners sewed their lips together in September to call attention to the inefficiency of the country’s justice system, claiming that they had spent more than a year in prison awaiting trial. A similar protest broke out in Kenya’s Shimo la Tewa prison in April as prisoners, some of whom had been held from two to five years awaiting trial, called a hunger strike to denounce the courts’ chronic delays. That same month, hundreds of inmates in Roumieh prison in Lebanon rioted, protesting what they claimed were terrible conditions, torture by guards—including the intentional burning of one inmate—and a stalled justice system that left some prisoners detained for up to five years without trial. Other outbreaks of prison unrest were reported in Albania, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Defending Prisoners’ Human Rights

By struggling against the natural tendency toward secrecy and silence on prison abuses, the efforts of numerous local human rights groups around the world—who fought to obtain access to prisons, monitored prison conditions, and publicized the abuses they found—were critical in 1998, as in the past. In Egypt, both the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners and the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights released reports describing inmate deaths resulting from mistreatment and the denial of medical care. Exemplifying the dangers inherent in such vigorous advocacy, Abbas Amir-Entezam, Iran’s former deputy prime minister who was once himself incarcerated, faced defamation charges in September for his statements exposing that country’s harsh prison conditions.

In some countries, moreover, government human rights ombudspersons, parliamentary commissions, and other official monitors helped call attention to abuses. In the United Kingdom, notably, the chief inspector of prisons continued his vigorous investigations of the country’s penal facilities, despite reported pressure from prison authorities to tone down his criticisms. Similarly, Argentina’s prison ombudsman monitored and reported on prison abuses in the country’s federal prisons, visiting numerous facilities. In May, the Inspectorate of Prisons in Malawi released a forceful report on prison abuses, revealing the prisons’ high death rate, shocking levels of overcrowding, and appalling lack of medical care.

At the regional level as well, prison monitoring mechanisms were active. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) continued its important work, inspecting the penal institutions of some eleven countries in 1998, including those of Andorra, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, Macedonia, and the Ukraine. In May, Russia, which confined one of the world’s largest prisoner populations, ratified the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the treaty authorizing the CPT’s monitoring. As of September 1998, a total of forty countries were party to the convention.

In Africa, the special rapporteur on prisons and conditions of detention, an adjunct to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, completed his second year. In November 1997, he delivered a report on prison conditions in Mali, the fruit of an August mission to the country. Among his most notable findings, the special rapporteur documented long terms of pretrial detention—lasting up to six years in some cases—widespread mixing of juvenile and adult prisoners, the use of chains and leg irons, severe beatings of prisoners, dilapidated prison facilities, and custodial sexual misconduct. His 1998 visits included prisons in Mozambique and Madagascar.

U.N. Monitoring Efforts

The vast scale and chronic nature of the human rights violations in the world’s prisons have long been of concern to the United Nations, as demonstrated by the 1955 promulgation of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Indeed, the international community’s failure to adopt these standards in practice, even while it has embraced them in theory, has inspired the United Nations’ most recent prisons effort.

For the past several years, a U.N. working group has been hammering out a draft treaty that would establish a U.N. subcommittee authorized to make regular and ad hoc visits to places of detention in states party to the treaty, including prisons, jails, and police lockups. As described in the draft treaty—conceived as an optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture—the basic goal of the subcommittee would be to prevent torture and other ill-treatment. Accordingly, based on the information obtained during its periodic and ad hoc visits, the subcommittee would make detailed recommendations to state authorities regarding necessary improvements to their detention facilities, and the authorities would be expected to implement these recommendations.

Although the proposed monitoring mechanism had great promise, it also had serious potential flaws. Notable among them was the possibility that the subcommittee could be entirely barred from reporting publicly on abuses it discovers, pursuant to a strict rule of confidentiality that some countries have advocated. Although the draft treaty favored cooperation between governments and the subcommittee as a means of instituting remedial measures, it must, if it is to create an effective mechanism, leave open the possibility of public reporting, at least in situations where governments stubbornly refuse to cooperate with the subcommittee or to implement its recommendations.

In what turned out to be the least productive set of meetings of a nearly decade-long drafting process, the working group openedits seventh two-week session in September 1998. Although most countries active in the deliberations—including Costa Rica, South Africa, Switzerland, Chile, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Australia—clearly favored establishing a strong and workable mechanism, a few recalcitrant states such as the United States and Cuba succeeded in hindering the working group’s progress toward this goal. Because the proceedings were conducted on a consensus basis, rather than by simple majority vote, a small minority of countries were able to have an exaggerated impact on the negotiations. At the end of the session, not only had little progress been made toward finalizing the draft text, but the state representatives in attendance were unable even to agree upon a final report of their deliberations.

Other U.N. bodies aggressively pressed countries to improve their prison conditions. During its sixty-third session, the U.N. Human Rights Committee expressed concern over deficient prison conditions in Italy and Tanzania, two countries whose implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was under periodic review. With regard to Ecuador, the committee was troubled by the long periods of pretrial detention endured by many criminal suspects, caused by the justice system’s chronic delays.

For its part, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution on Nigeria in April, citing the country’s “life-threatening prison conditions” and calling on the government to “ensure that the treatment of prisoners and their conditions of detention are in accordance with recognized international standards.”

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
Castigados sin condena: condiciones en las prisiones de Venezuela , 5/98 (updated Spanish-language edition, Punishment without Trial: Prison Conditions in Venezuela , 3/97)
Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan State Prisons , 9/98
Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States , 10/98
Behind Bars in Brazil , 12/98


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