UN Prison Standards -New Rules or Better Compliance?

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The Gevangepoort (Prison Gate) in The Hague was used to detain the Count of Holland’s prisoners as far back as the 15th Century. Now a museum, up to 15 people were held in each of its dark and often cold cells, with serious and minor suspects mixed together sometimes for many months before a verdict was reached. Those who had money could pay for better conditions. In 1672 Cornelius de Witt accused of plotting to murder a prince spent two weeks in the deluxe knight’s chamber at the cost of 227 guilders- the annual wage of an artisan.

In some respects this is a world we have thankfully lost. In Europe at least, many of the penalties imposed on the guilty –humiliations, banishment, corporal punishment and death -have disappeared. Officially sanctioned torture is no longer used to extract confessions. The role of the mob – that took the law into its own hands and murdered De Witt after what they perceived to be an unduly lenient sentence – is much diminished.

But in other respects the use of pre trial detention itself has changed little.  Over the last two years the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has reported on prisons within EU countries that lock up remand prisoners in their cells 23 hours a day, where oppressive and stultifying regimes damage mental health and offer little in the way of activities for juveniles. Further afield in Europe and Central Asia , accusations of beatings and life threatening conditions are not uncommon in the Sizos of former soviet countries. In Africa and Latin America matters are much worse with overcrowding, torture and corruption which would not have been out of place in the 17th century Gevangepoort . Those with money can like De Witt buy better conditions or even their freedom. Those without can end up lost in the system spending longer waiting for a court decision than they could have served as a sentence.

Next week UN member states meet in Vienna to consider revising the Standard Minimum Rules for Prisoners (SMR’s). Justice and Prisons has argued that whatever the case for revision, promoting and sustaining practical reforms on the ground need to be a priority if conditions of detention for the world’s ten million prisoners are to be improved.This is particularly true for pre- trial detainees. The current rules require a special regime that reflects the presumption of innocence. This goes well beyond the separation of untried from convicted prisoners and the young from adults. But how many of the world’s remand sleep singly in separate rooms, are offered opportunity to work (and be paid for it) or are given all reasonable facilities for receiving visits from family and friends?

While the priority must be to reduce the excessive use of pre trial detention,- through legal aid and advice, reforms to criminal procedure, diversion of petty offenders and time limits for proceedings, conditions for those who are detained must not be forgotten.  One way forward would be for the UN to propose that over the next three years member states should undertake a detailed audit of their compliance with the SMR’s.  The Declaration from the 2010 UN Crime Congress in Brazil confirmed that countries should use UN standards and norms for the treatment of prisoners as a source of guidance in the development or updating of their national codes of penitentiary administration.  Justice and Prisons thinks that they should be used in addition as a benchmark for measuring and improving prison conditions and regimes, starting with the treatment of pre trial detainees.



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