Prisoners around the world, a large proportion of whom had not been convicted of any crime, were frequently confined in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions. While conditions of detention varied greatly from country to country and facility to facility, standards almost everywhere were shockingly low. Prisons and jails in even the richest and most developed countries were plagued by severe overcrowding, decaying physical infrastructure, a lack of medical care, guard abuse and corruption, and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. 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 abuses. Indeed, prison populations in many countries continued to increase, exacerbating existing problems.
In some states, 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 access to their penal facilities, prison officials sought to keep even egregious abuses hidden from public view. 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 of conditions. 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. Yet in 1999 there were encouraging developments in this regard. In Burma, most notably, the ICRC began conducting prison visits in May and by September ICRC delegates had inspected nine places of detention, visiting more than 18,000 detainees.
Abusive Treatment of Prisoners
Inmates in some facilities faced death at the hands of prison guards or other prisoners. Twenty-nine inmates in a Niger prison reportedly died of suffocation in late August after being crowded into a small windowless cell by guards. Inmates of the civil prison in Niamey had rioted the week before; those suspected of leading the riot were crammed into the airless security cell. Witnesses reportedly saw guards respond to the cries of suffocating prisoners by firing teargas into the cell.
Eleven prisoners were killed by gendarmes in late September at a prison in Ankara, Turkey, an incident that local human rights activists termed a massacre. The gendarmes stormed the cell block to put down a riot, reportedly beating one of the inmates so badly that his body could not be identified. In Azerbaijan in January, eleven inmates were reportedly killed at Gobustan prison when security forces forcibly quelled a prison mutiny. The previous month, in Venezuela, ten inmates were killed and 104 injured in a similar incident.
While mass killings such as these merited an occasional mention in the press, the vast majority of inmate deaths went unnoticed. In some countries-Venezuela being a particularly salient example-prison homicides were a routine occurrence, happening on an almost daily basis. Indeed, four inmates were killed during the first two days of 1999 in a single Venezuelan prison, one on January 1 and three on January 2. Other countries with chronically high levels of prison violence included Brazil, Kenya, and South Africa. Inmates were most frequently killed by other inmates rather than by guards, but inmate-on-inmate violence was usually the predictable result of official negligence. By neglecting to supervise and control the inmates within their facilities, by failing to respond to incidents of violence, by corruptly allowing the entry of weapons into the prisons, and by generally abetting the tyranny of the strongest prisoners over the weakest, prison authorities were directly responsible for the violence of their charges.
Prison death rates were often far higher than corresponding numbers from outside the prison context. 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 and Malawi prisons, for example, combined with terrible overcrowding, created ideal conditions for the spread of communicable diseases. One Malawi prisoner reportedly died of hunger in February, while thousands of other prisoners were said to be starving. Cases of severe malnutrition were also reported in prisons in Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Madagascar.
Fostered by poor conditions, cholera struck prisons in Zambia and Malawi, causing a reported eighteen deaths in February at Malawi's Chichiri prison, and at least two deaths in March at facilities in Lusaka. In Mozambique, the justice ministry confirmed in February that at least twenty-five inmates had died in 1998 for lack of medical care.
Tuberculosis continued to ravage prison populations around the world. The spread of TB was especially worrisome in Russia, in light of the country's enormous inmate population-over one million prisoners as of May 1999-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 more than 10 percent of sick inmates being affected by MDR strains, constituting a serious threat to public health. The epidemic of tuberculosis was not confined to Russia but instead swept through prisons all over the former Soviet Union. In March, the ICRC announced that among prisoners in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) the incidence of this serious infectious disease was on average fifty times greater than in the general population.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic also rampaged through prison populations, with penal facilities around the world reporting grossly disproportionate rates of HIV infection and of confirmed AIDS cases. For example, the U.N. reported that by October 1998 some 18 percent of the total number of reported cases of HIV infection in Russia were found among the prison population. Because the onset of AIDS left prisoners more vulnerable to tuberculosis, the two diseases often occurred together.
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. In July, a warden of a German prison was convicted of forcing two women inmates to participate in a wide range of sexual activities. Custodial sexual misconduct was also widespread in the United States, where male guards outnumbered female guards in many women's prisons. The corrections department of the state of Arizona settled a lawsuit in March in which thirty-four cases of forced sexual contact between prisoners and prison staff were alleged; the department agreed to take effective steps to protect women inmates from future abuse.
In contravention of international standards, juvenile inmates were often held together with adults. Many of Pakistan's jails and police lockups mixed juvenile and adult prisoners, as did detention facilities in Honduras, Kenya, and Zambia. Children in such circumstances frequently fell victim to physical abuse, including rape, by adult inmates.
Extortion by prison staff, and 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, while their less fortunate brethren lived in squalor. A teenage girl reportedly died in December 1998 while attending a lavish Christmas party-complete with champagne, whisky, cocaine, and live music-held in the cell of high-level Colombian drug trafficker.
Overcrowding-prevalent in almost every country for which information was available-was at the root of many of the worst abuses. In Madagascar, for example, more than 20,000 inmates were squeezed into prisons whose total capacity was reported to be 12,000. 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 Brazilian police lockups, where a large proportion of the country's approximately 180,000 detainees were held, overcrowding was so acute, and floor space was at such a premium, that inmates had to tie themselves to the cell bars to sleep. In Brazil, as in many other countries, inmates often suffered long stays in these dreadful conditions.
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 followed in other countries. 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.
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.
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 Rulesdescribe "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.
Even those unsympathetic to convicted criminals and entirely skeptical of the idea of rehabilitation had reason to be concerned about the inhuman treatment of prisoners. Although comprehensive figures were impossible to obtain, the available statistics showed that a large proportion 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 were charged. In Nigeria, where some 60 percent of prisoners were pretrial detainees, many unconvicted inmates were held over four years before being released. Prisoners also continued to be held after the expiration of their sentences in some countries. In Mozambique, for example, a local reporter visiting the Inhambane provincial jail in May discovered ten inmates who had allegedly completed their sentences, including some who should have been released six months earlier.
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. The most dramatic such incidents in 1999 took place in Kazakhstan and Venezuela. In March, and again in May, dozens of inmates in Kazak prisons reportedly slashed open their own stomachs to protest abusive conditions of confinement. In April, 135 Venezuelan inmates held in a remote jungle facility took part in what they termed a "blood strike," slicing up their legs and arms to draw attention to their demand for transfers back to prisons located closer to their families. Other outbreaks of prison unrest were reported in Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Niger, 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 1999, as in the past.
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. The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines similarly pressed the government to improve the country's deplorable prison and jail conditions.
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 penal institutions in more than ten countries in 1999, including Latvia, Romania, Turkey, Portugal, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, and the Netherlands. As of September 1999, forty-one countries were party to the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the treaty authorizing the CPT's monitoring.
In Africa, the special rapporteur on prisons and conditions of detention, an adjunct to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, completed his third year, inspecting prisons in Benin and the Gambia.
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. The working group opened its seventh two-week session in October 1999. As described in the draft treaty-conceived as an optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture-the primary 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.
Other U.N. bodies pressed countries to improve their prison conditions. In April, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted resolutions in which it expressed concern over deficient prison conditions in Cambodia and Haiti. In June, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited overcrowded pretrial detention facilities in Russia.
Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
Behind Bars in Brazil, 12/98
Red Onion State Prison: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Virginia, 4/99
Prison Bound: The Denial of Juvenile Justice in Pakistan, 10/99