Council of Europe demands humane prisons policy

1 June 2013

Council of Europe demands humane prisons policy

The existence of overcrowded prisons in many European countries represents a transgression of human rights.

They are bad for the prisoners, bad for prison staff and bad for society as a whole. Council of Europe member states should therefore pay more attention to possible alternatives such as community service, suspended sentences and electronic supervision. Fewer people should be held on remand. These were the recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). SP Senator Tiny Kox supported the recommendations, but warned of the possibility of new abuses.

At least twenty-one of the forty-seven Council of Europe member states have to contend with overfull prisons, according to an alarming PACE report from Serbian MP Natasa Vuckovic. Council of Europe Supervisory instruments are constantly detecting instances in which the rights of prisoners are disregarded in overcrowded prisons. Despite this, member states are locking up ever more people. In eastern European countries more people are now in prison than was the case twenty years ago, with Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine the worst culprits. For a long time the Netherlands was one country with relatively few prisoners, but that has changed since the 1990s, the Serbian rapporteur notes. Her own country is one of those with the most overcrowded prisons.

Senator Kox, speaking in his capacity as Chair of the European United Left Group in PACE, expressed heartfelt support for the call for action to be taken, saying that ‘overpopulated prisons are bad for prisoners, dangerous for prison staff and counterproductive from the point of view of society. Too many prisoners means too little capacity for supervision, which means that too many people come out of prison with more criminal skills and fewer social skills. Other forms of punishment can relieve the prisons and prove more effective. Suspended sentences and community service, for example. People under electronic surveillance can also work, provided this is under the right conditions and with suitable supervision.’

Kox warned, however, that a different approach must be adopted as a consequence of the general interest, and not in response to short-sighted pressure to cut spending. In his view new proposals from the Dutch government offered an example of how not to go about it. The building of mega-prisons and the unthought out application of electronic supervision without adequate guidance being provided were examples of this. ‘It’s not for nothing that so many people in the Netherlands are protesting against these plans.’

The SP Senator also warned about privatisation plans. ‘Prisoners aren’t merchandise,’ he said. ‘When the state has the exclusive right to imprison people, this same state must also ensure that there is sufficient capacity and sufficient supervision. 'A number of countries have already farmed out the management of prisons and also electronic surveillance to private corporations, a move which the Dutch government wishes to emulate. A disastrous course in Kox’s view, while he also opposes sending prisoners off to be held in another country. ‘Belgium is sending people to a Dutch prison, in Tilburg,’ he says. ‘But Belgium should be ensuring that there are sufficient decent prisons on their own territory. You shouldn’t be exporting prisoners. I hope that the situation in Tilburg remains an exception.'

PACE met this week in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Armenia being the current holder of the Council of Europe rotating six-month presidency. Kox is curious as to whether holding the presidency will inspire the country itself to do better when it comes to the human rights of its own citizens, pointing out that ‘of all European countries Armenia spends least on its prisoners, two euros a day. That’s completely inadequate for a humane policy. From this year onwards it is formally expected of countries taking the presidency that give greater attention to human rights at home, so Armenia has a lot to do, though this also applies to all other member states currently going in the wrong direction.’'

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