Detention conditions for a majority of prisoners deplorable – UN human rights expert

20 October 2009

A United Nations human rights expert today called for the adoption of a global convention to protect the rights of people in detention, warning that far too many States are failing to meet their obligations to respect the basic dignity of prisoners.

Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, told journalists that a majority of the estimated 10 million persons in detention worldwide were living in unacceptable conditions.

Authorities in many countries did not even provide food to prisoners, considering that the responsibility of detainees’ families, Mr. Nowak said, noting this meant the poor or those without families were forced to provide services to others in exchange for food.

The standard of sanitation and health care was frequently deplorable, he added, with prisoners forced to live and sleep amid human waste and wounds going untreated and allowed to fester.

Unacceptable conditions existed in both rich and poor countries, according to the Rapporteur, with prisoners deemed to be at the bottom of society and therefore not deserving of basic levels of care.

Mr. Nowak, who serves in an unpaid, independent capacity and reports to the UN Human Rights Council, today presented his fifth annual report on his work to the General Assembly’s third committee.

He detailed numerous examples from his visits to countries around the world of overcrowded prison cells lacking basic heat or ventilation, young children being held in the same detention areas as hardened adult criminals, and routine torture for people in prison.

Earlier, he told the UN News Centre in an interview that when he became Rapporteur, he had expected to encounter disturbing cases of torture, but he was not prepared for the volume and scale of inhuman treatment of detainees.

“There’s this attitude that to be in jail you must have done something wrong,” Mr. Nowak said. “It totally overlooks the presumption of innocence.”

He noted that in some countries people spend years in pre-trial detention before they have an opportunity to answer or challenge the criminal charges placed on them. In many cases they are released because the charges are baseless or because the lengthy jail time they have already spent outweighs any sentence they would have been given for relatively minor offences.

Mr. Nowak said thousands and thousands of people currently in detention could be released on bail ahead of their trials and the vast majority would not flee.

He also spoke out against the treatment of illegal immigrants in detention in wealthy countries, as well as the mixing of juvenile detainees with adults.

Turning to Guantanamo Bay, where the United States has hundreds of people in detention without facing trial, Mr. Nowak said remained confident that President Barack Obama would be able to implement his pledge to contain the detention centre.

“Of course I am concerned about the situation and I am following it very closely, both in my negotiations with the US and with European countries to assist the US in taking people. It’s a complex process.

“I am concerned that very few countries have been willing to accept Guantanamo detainees, but [Mr.] Obama has come forward with some different proposals and I am still confident that it can be closed by January next year.”

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