Ten million detainees held in dire conditions worldwide – UN expert

16 April 2010 – Some 10 million detainees around the world are held in appalling conditions and stronger measures are needed to improve prison conditions and ensure full respect for human rights, according to a United Nations expert on torture.

“In light of some 10 million human beings deprived of personal liberty and their alarming conditions of detention, the need for a legally binding and enforceable human rights instrument is pressing,” UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak told the 12th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice currently under way in Salvador, Brazil.

He cited countries he had already visited in his role as a UN independent unpaid expert, from Uruguay, Indonesia and Nigeria to Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan and from Mongolia and China to Jordan and Sri Lanka. He said his mandate provides for unannounced visits and unsupervised interviews with detainees, two conditions denied him by Russia and the United States.

Of the millions detained under degrading conditions, many might be innocent victims of corrupt and dysfunctional criminal justice systems and often belong to the groups facing the greatest discrimination in society, such as the poor, minorities, drug addicts or aliens, Mr. Nowak said yesterday as he delivered a keynote address to a workshop at the conference.

Moreover, strict prison hierarchies meant that those at the bottom – children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and diseases, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons – suffered “double or triple discrimination,” Mr. Nowak added.

Besides corporal punishment and other forms of violence, deprivation of food, water, clothing and health care is a cause of concern to him, as are violations of the right to the minimum of space, hygiene, privacy and security necessary for a humane and dignified existence.

In a visit to Uruguay’s Libertad Prison, Mr. Nowak said he found hundreds of convicts and pre-trial detainees had spent months or even years in tiny metal boxes in which summer temperatures could reach 60 degrees Celsius. Detainees drank water from the toilets and defecated in plastic bags which they later threw out of their cells.

“The noise and smell were unbearable and must be regarded as inhuman, even for the prison guards working there,” he said. “Prisoners had to cut themselves in order to get attention and medical assistance.”

In many post-Soviet countries, including Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan, long-term prisoners were locked up most of the time, sometimes in solitary confinement. In Mongolia, some prisoners were held in solitary confinement for up to 30 years, and some on death row were kept shackled in dark cells for months, and could only be visited by one family member before their execution.

Inhuman conditions exited in China, Jordan, Sri Lanka and other countries, Mr. Nowak noted. Indonesia raised objections to his allegation that prisoners paid a daily fee for “accommodation,” but he stood by his characterization of such payments as “corruption fees.”

He said a good indicator of a well-functioning prison was a low ratio of pre-trial detainees to convicts, noting that in Nigeria almost 70 per cent of prisoners were in pre-trial detention and he had called for the immediate release of 20,000 people since most had already exceeded the maximum penalty possible in relation to the crime they were suspected of committing.

“In far too many countries, pre-trial detention […] serves as a type of preliminary punishment for all criminal suspects who lack sufficient money to bribe corrupt police or prison officials, judges and prosecutors,” he added.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) official Fabienne Hariga noted that while prison populations comprise many drug addicts and sex workers, health-care standards and access to medicine, water and quality food are sub-standard in many cases.

Tuberculosis is rampant in many prisons, resulting in preventable deaths in various parts of the world. Prison officials are often corrupt and negligent in attending to prisoners’ needs while officials often deny the problems, she said, emphasizing that all too often prisoners’ right to health was not respected.


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