Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


The Human Rights Watch Prison Project was formed in 1987 to focus international attention on prison conditions worldwide. Drawing on the expertise of the regional divisions of Human Rights Watch, the Prison Project investigates conditions for sentenced prisoners, pre-trial detainees, and those held in police lockups. The Prison Project is distinctive in the international human rights field in that it examines conditions for all prisoners, not simply those held for political reasons.

In addition to pressing for improvement in prison conditions in particular countries, the Prison 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 not only by the political freedoms it allows but also by how it treats its prisoners, including those not held for political reasons. Our experience has repeatedly shown that a number of democratic countries that are rarely or never a focus of human rights scrutiny are in fact guilty of serious human rights violations within their prisons.

The Prison Project has a self-imposed set of rules for prison visits: investigators undertake visits only when they, not the authorities, can choose the 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 access on such terms is not possible, reporting is based on interviews with former prisoners, prisoners on furlough, relatives of inmates, lawyers, prison experts and prison staff, and on documentary evidence. The Prison Project uses the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners as the chief guideline by which to assess prison conditions in each country. Prison investigations are usually conducted by teams composed of a member of the Prison Project's staff or advisory committee and a member of a Human Rights Watch regional division's staff with expertise on the country in question. Occasionally, the Prison Project invites an outside expert to participate in an investigation.

The Prison Project's findings, published as reports of Human Rights Watch, are released to the public and the press, both in the United States and in the country in question, and sent to the government of that country. Whenever possible, the report is also published in translation. In addition, the Prison Project conducts advocacy both in the country in question and before international bodies, striving to eliminate human rights violations within prisons.

In previous years, the Prison Project conducted studies and published reports on prison conditions in Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Jamaica, Mexico, Poland, Romania, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States (including Puerto Rico, with a separate newsletter published).

The Enforcement of Standards

The U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners is the most widely known and accepted document regulating prison conditions. Unfortunately, these standards, although known to prison administrators virtually all over the world, are seldom fully enforced. Based on extensive research over the years, the Prison Project concluded in the 1993 Human Rights Watch Global Report on Prisons that the great majority of the millions of persons who are imprisoned worldwide at any given moment, and of the tens of millions who spend at least part of the year behind bars, are confined in conditions of filth and corruption, without adequate food or medical care, with little or nothing to do, and in circumstances in which violence_from other inmates, their keepers, or both_is a constant threat. Despite international declarations, treaties and standards forbidding such conditions, this state of affairs is tolerated even in countries that are more or less respectful of human rights, because prisons, by their nature, are out of sight, and because prisoners, by definition, are outcasts. To strengthen the enforcement of standards, the Prison Project has continued to advocate creating a U.N. human rights mechanism to inspect prisons and to strengthen the mechanism for enforcement of standards and the prevention of abuses.

The Prison Project participated in the 1994 session of the Working Group on the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, convened by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to devise a universal system of visits to places of detention. Despite its reservations regarding the confidentiality of that system, the Prison Project has endorsed the effort and has been striving to ensure its maximum effectiveness. It has also worked to defeat efforts by some member states to water down the provisions of the system.

In February, in a statement before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, The Prison Project highlighted the plight of common prisoners and the urgent need for improvements in this area. And throughout 1994, the Prison Project maintained contacts with the other U.N. bodies that concern themselves with prison matters. A Prison Project representative attended a preparatory meeting for the Ninth United Nations Congress on the Treatment of Offenders, and sent a statement to the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and the Treatment of Offenders, in both cases urging the commission to make the improvement of prison conditions worldwide and monitoring the implementation of standards by member states a priority in its work. Several times during the year, the Prison Project communicated with the office of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, providing information and urging the rapporteur to take steps in particular instances. The Prison Project also wrote to the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, who had indicated his interest in prison matters, to include prison-related issues in his contacts with governments, and in particular to raise them with the government of Venezuela.

Human Rights Watch has continued to press the U.S. government to promote improvements in prison conditions internationally. It has urged U.S. representatives to the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and the Treatment of Offenders to support and strengthen the human rights component of the U.N.'s work related to prisons. On March 15, in its testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the foreign aid reform, The Prison Project recommended that the U.S. government (1) improve its reporting on prison conditions in the Department of State's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993; (2) stop the recent trend of shifting the focus of the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice from the treatment of prisoners to activities related to international crime and drug trafficking; and, (3) support and strengthen the work of the U.N. Criminal Justice Branch. The Prison Project also cautioned against direct U.S. assistance for prisons and instead advocated channelling such aid through the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention.

Since 1993, the Prison Project has participated in an international effort by representatives of about a dozen nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations to strengthen standards regarding prison conditions; the goal is to make these standards more effective in safeguarding the human rights of detainees. A representative of the Prison Project was invited to join a drafting group charged with preparing a human rights guide to the main universal standards that apply to the field of criminal justice. The draft of the document was discussed at a meeting of over one hundred prisoner rights activists and representatives of national prison administrations from countries around the world that was held in November 1994 in The Hague. The final version of the document is to be presented during the Ninth U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and the Treatment of Offenders that will be held in Tunis in April 1995.


The Prison Project has played a leading role in developing methodology for prison investigations for researchers of all the divisions of Human Rights Watch. A project representative has conducted periodic training sessions for the staff members on interviewing techniques within a prison context as well as on the particular concerns that arise when working with witnesses who are imprisoned.

The Prison Project's director was invited to Geneva in May to conduct a training session during an International Committee of the Red Cross seminar for field staff members of the Detention Division of that organization.


The Prison Project continued its fact-finding work and the publication of country-specific reports on prison conditions throughout 1994.

In January, a report on prison conditions in Zaire was published jointly with Human Rights Watch/Africa. Based on an investigation in 1993 that involved visits to several prisons and detention camps, as well as police jails, we described a system in a state of deep crisis, with an extremely high mortality rate, malnutrition leading to occasional cases of starvation and rampant abuses that include a widespread use of torture.

In February, a report on South African prisons was released simultaneously in the U.S. and in South Africa. The study was based on research conducted in 1992 and 1993 by representatives of the Prison Project and Human Rights Watch/Africa. The report noted that despite significant reforms in the prison system since the beginning of political changes in that country, many aspects of prison life remained unchanged since the years of official apartheid. The report concluded that many of the needed changes in the South African prison system could be accomplished through policy changes rather than significant investments, and offered a list of specific recommendations.

In March, Human Rights Watch, jointly with the American College of Physicians, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Physicians for Human Rights, issued a report on physician participation in capital punishment in the U.S. The report, titled "Breach of Trust: Physician Participation in Executions in the United States" generated significant press attention, with dozens of stories published in newspapers throughout the country, and provoked a discussion in national media on the ethical implications of the participation of the medical profession in judicial killings.

In July, representatives of the Prison Project and Human Rights Watch/Asia conducted an investigation of prison conditions in Japan. Members of the delegation were unable to obtain unrestricted access to prisons. After a series of meetings with the authorities, the Japanese government offered visits to institutions it selected, without the right to interview prisoners, with no possibility to take measurements and under conditions in which the prison authorities would choose the parts of the institution to show to the delegation. Following the institutional rule, the delegation declined this offer and collected information based on interviews with former prisoners, with relatives of current prisoners, clergy, prisoner support group members, and lawyers handling current or recent prison litigation cases, as well as information provided to us by government officials. The Prison Project conducted interviews in Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, Niigata and Asahikawa. A report will be published in early 1995.

U.S. Prison Issues

For several years, the Prison Project has been involved in issues related to U.S. prisons. The Prison Project continued monitoring conditions for U.S. prisoners in 1994, with particular focus on the proliferation of super-maximum security institutions (or "maxi-maxis"), a problem to which the Prison Project first called attention in its 1991 report on prison conditions in the U.S. In 1994 the Prison Project contacted all state correctional departments to determine which states used what particular forms of super-maximum security institutions. The results of this informal survey are being used by a group of grass roots organizations in establishing a nation-wide "maxi-maxi" monitoring network.

One of the most serious concerns for Human Rights Watch regarding the above issue, has been the situation at a maxi-maxi facility in the state of Indiana. The Prison Project has received distressing reports of abuses since 1991, and has communicated its concerns several times to the Indiana Corrections Commissioner. Since 1993, the project has repeatedly asked to be allowed to inspect the institution. The project's 1994 effort was boosted by a letter from a group of Indiana's political and religious leaders, urging the state administration to admit an inspection by Human Rights Watch. As of this writing, the Commissioner of Corrections has persistently refused to grant his permission for such a visit. On several occasions during the past year, the Prison Project also sent communications to federal officials, raising issues of concern within U.S. prisons.

Upon the public release of the first-ever United States government's report on the country's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in October, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement criticizing the report and pointing to the main areas in which the U.S. violates the provisions of the covenant. The ICCPR, which includes important safeguards of relevance to prison conditions, was ratified by the United States in June 1992. It provides an extremely valuable tool for establishing accountability for prison abuse. Because in important respects the United States falls short of international standards relevant to prisons, we believe that scrutiny under these standards, and in light of international practices, can be particularly effective.

With international standards, including the ICCPR in mind, the Prison Project jointly with the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project has conducted a year-long study of sexual abuse of women in U.S. prisons. Investigators interviewed witnesses, including prisoners, former prisoners, prisoner rights advocates, lawyers and government officials in five states. A report is scheduled to be published in early 1995.

The Human Rights Watch Prison Project joined with the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project in inviting Deborah LaBelle, an attorney working on behalf of women abused in prisons in the U.S., to be honored for her work at Human Rights Watch's observance of Human Rights Day in December.

Emergency-type Missions

The Prison Project has over the years sent emergency-type missions following instances of extremely serious prison disturbances. In our experience, the time right after a prison disturbance, especially a bloody one, is often the moment when the most serious human rights violations are likely to occur. By sending a delegation under such circumstances, the Prison Project strives to protect the survivors by publicizing the events both locally and internationally and by raising human rights concerns over the aftermath of a prison disturbance. In January, a representative of Prison Project traveled to Maracaibo, Venezuela, following a prison massacre there in which more than 100 prisoners lost their lives. The Prison Project's visit, that received wide media attention in Venezuela, included interviews with survivors, relatives of prisoners, prison authorities and meetings with elected officials both on national and state level. A newsletter based on this mission was published in February.

Follow-up on Earlier Work

In 1991, the Prison Project_together with Helsinki Watch, the precursor to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki_conducted an in-depth investigation of prisons and pre-trial detention centers in the Russian Federation. Reports of abuse similar to that documented under the Soviet government continued to surface frequently during the years following independence, and in the spring of 1994 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and the Prison Project initiated a follow-up investigation into the notorious pre-trial detention centers to maintain pressure on government officials to improve conditions. In June 1994, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversees Russia's penal system, rejected our request for access as "undesirable" since a parliamentary commission would be conducting similar work through 1995. In July it rejected an appeal without explanation. The Human Rights Watch Moscow-based staff is currently collecting testimony from individuals recently released from two pre-trial detention centers in Moscow, which will serve as the basis for a report due out in early 1995.

In Brazil, the Prison Project followed closely the judicial proceedings related to two prison tragedies_one in 1989, the other in 1992_in the aftermath of which the Prison Project sent investigators and worked on publicizing the events both in Brazil and internationally. In the 1989 case of the death of eighteen prisoners in the Police Jail 42 in Sao Paulo, one of the officials indicted was acquitted by a jury in an August trial. More than twenty-five defendants have not yet been tried in this case. Witnesses have been heard in the trials of the 120 military policemen indicted after the 1992 massacre in the Sao Paulo Casa de Dentencao that left 111 prisoners dead. The prosecutor in the case, Dr. Estela Kuhlman, has been receiving death threats for over a year. Human Rights Watch publicized this fact in a press conference held in Sao Paulo in September.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page