Human Rights Of prisoner

Two days of Seminar  jointly organized and prepared by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care (ICCPPC).


I was invited by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and by ICCPPC to join the International Seminar about Human Rights of Prisoners. The Seminar took place, from 1 to 2 March, at the premises of the Vatican, Palazzo S. Callisto the headquarter of the Pontifical Counsel of Justice and Peace, in Trastevere.  The day before last  February 28, I walked along Via della Conciliazione in Rome,  heading to a preparatory meeting for the Seminary.

It would be an historical event because for the very first time in Rome such important matter was dealt with by both the Pontifical Counsel and the ICCPPC (i.e. International Commission Catholic Pastoral Prison Care).

Delegates from the five Continents were present in Rome for such an event.

When I was in New York carrying out my priestly mission as Chaplain of Brooklyn Detention House, I could feel the international atmosphere. People from all over the world living in the same place. New York is like a laboratory where people form different races are confronting with  the difficult task to live together, and to work together, in an effort to keep the peace. What is at stake is the possibility for people from all continents  to live in peace together!

In Rome, as I was getting to Casa del Clero in Via Traspontina, a thought came across my mind: Yes people from all over the world can live together in peace because we are all part of God’s great big family: The Catholic Church is an evidence of this truth!

People from all Continents gather together in St. Peter Square is the evidence that when God makes you aware of  your God’s childhood then you feel that everybody in the world is your brother and your sister, even those who, after having committed some crime, are behind bars. Yes! even criminals are our brothers and sisters because “…there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between prisoners and free men, …; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). Criminals are still children of God and, as the lost sheep of the Gospel, they must be saved. Jesus Christ takes the ground, and with Him all the Church, in order to bring them reconciled  in the civil and ecclesial community that can’t wait to celebrate this event : “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine respectable people who do not need to repent.” (Lk. 15:7)

H.E. Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, President of Justice and Peace, expressed very well the meaning of the Seminar when in his final statement says: “First of all we want to thank God for having given us this extraordinary and historical opportunity to gather in this Pontifical Counsel in order to share experiences, our good intentions and projects. Above all The Lord has granted us to give expression to our good will to continue in our ecclesial and civil commitment for the full respect of the human dignity and the fundamental rights of prisoners.”

Last August I met Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, President of Justice and Peace, for the first time in Lourdes at the International holy Mass in the S. Pio X Chapel. After I thanked him for his commitment in pastoral prison care He promised me: “father Bruno I’ll be visiting Poggioreale Jails some day!”

Mr. Christian Kuhn, President of ICCPPC, welcomed all the people present at the seminar, almost 80 participants, among them the leaders of the Pontifical Counsel for justice and Peace, many general prison chaplains coming from more than 20 countries, from all five Continents, representatives of Vatican authorities (Secretariat of State,…), religious congregations, international human rights experts, representatives of catholic institutions (caritas International, Sant’Egidio…) and the President of the Ecumenical International prison Chaplains Association.

Mr Kuhn said inter alia that “although Prison Chaplains are not naïve and are aware of the enormous danger which crime, and especially organised crime, drug trafficking and terrorism represents for society actually it is often the poor and marginalized who are detained, and in all cases it remains a key challenge to protect the human dignity of prisoners.”


 Human Rights of prisoners: a global challenge!

The main speech of the first day of meeting was prepared by Mr Eduardo Vetere, Director at the United Nation Crime prevention and criminal Justice Programm, since he was not able to attend the meeting the speech was delivered by his deputy Mrs. Jo Dedyne.

First of all, says Mr. Vetere in his introduction , “protecting human rights of prisoners… is a global challenge indeed, probably more than ever before. The media are full of information on appalling prison situations in countries emerging from conflicts or still in conflicts…but also the most developed countries are confronted with overcrowded prisons, in which detainees are exposed to violence and deterring conditions.”

Nowdays the number of convicts in the world runs into 8.75 million; this means that 1 out of 700 persons in the world is being held in a penal institution. Between 1995 and 2002 incarceration rates increased on average from 165 to 187 per 100,000 population. The Americas are the first on the list followed by Africa.

Then Mr. Vetere describing the evolution of prisoners rights states that “Prisons have for the last two centuries been increasingly used as a tool to seclude offenders in order to ensure that each member of society conforms to its norms.”

Law and custom of prison regimes are designed to protect human rights, but this is all well and good in theory “in practice they have often been used to commit very heinous crimes like torture, arbitrary killing and cruel and degrading treatment and punishment. Since prisons have frequently been one of the less visible areas of the law, offenders were deemed to have forfeited virtually all rights upon conviction to imprisonment”.

Nowdays “although current trends have taken diverse avenues in various countries, the idea underlying the process of humanization has now been accepted by many Governments: the prisoner is no longer considered as an object, who the law leave at the prison entrance and who would be condemned to ‘civil death’”

After talking about the United Nations Standard and norms and major regional initiatives Mr Vetere talks about more effective implementation of prisoners rights. That is:  a) improving the actual prison condition; b) strengthening the system and its personnel; c) Supervision by bodies independent of the prison administration; d) prison education.


a) Actual prison condition


Enemy number one of prison condition is overcrowding. The efforts to reduce the discrepancies between national legislation and practice and between judicial decisions and administrative implementation is useless unless you eradicate overcrowding. “Under these circumstances the whole prison system deteriorates, with very negative consequences for the discipline of the institution, the treatment of prisoners, and the protection of their human rights. In fact, overcrowding ca alone be sufficient to nullify any effort to humanize prison condition. Until the problem of overcrowding is resolved , efforts to improve other aspects of prison reform are unlikely to have any meaningful impact.”

The International community has therefore made the curbing of prison overcrowding the priority on the international agenda of penitentiary matters. The States have to develop specific actions and time-bound targets to address prison overcrowding…this means:

-         adoption of effective measures to reduce pre-trial detention (by increase use of bail and by facilitating pre-trail release;

-         Use of alternatives to imprisonment, where possible (a wider application of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for no-custodial Measures);

-         In dealing with minor offences, use of options such as customary practice, mediation between concerned parties or the payment of civil reparations or compensation (a wider application of the basic principles on the use of restorative justice programmes in criminal matters);

-         Conducting public awareness and education campaigns on alternatives to imprisonment and how they work, in order to get the actions proposed also accepted by the public at large.


b) Strengthening the system and its personnel

  Unqualified and untrained personnel dealing directly with prisoners could be another factor affecting the prison regime and the protection of prisoner’s human rights. That’s why priorities of any prison administration should be: “improving the performance and quality of prison personnel through appropriate training programmes… to develop  policies which would assist in ensuring that the motivation and commitment of prison personnel be high and sustainable  and performance in general be based on dedication and ingenuity…staff should provided with opportunities not only to further advance and achieve due recognition and job satisfaction, but also to be in a position to co-operate and assist in shaping prison policy…last but not least, adequate remuneration is of decisive significance for the persons one can recruit and retain as prison staff.”


c) Supervision by bodies independent of the prison administration

  C-a) Judicial Control of the prison administration

“of paramount importance for the protection of their rights is the access of  prisoners to independent courts to lodge complaints they might have concerning the legality of detention and the conditions of their confinement . In compliance with the principle of checks and balances, no citizen, irrespective of his of her status, should ever be subject to the complete and unsupervised administrative discretion of any branch of Government”

  C-b) Complaints procedures and other remedies

  Of great importance of improvement of prisoners’ rights is also 

-         Regular visits of qualified and experienced inspectors.

-         The participation of visitors from the outside.

-         Although grievance procedures goes through the administrative chain of command, several basic principles should be applied,  including easy access, guarantees against reprisal, confidentiality (if so requested by the complainant) prompt procedure and written reply without undue delay.

-         The right to bring the complaints to the ombudsman, an independent person of recognized integrity vested with broad discretionary powers to investigate and to recommend redress.


d) Prison education

About prison education Mr. Vetere says: “There are several rationales supporting education of prisoners. First, prisoners, like all persons, are entitled to be treated with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. Proper respect requires the observance of fundamental human rights, which include education. Second, the education of inmates may be a means of combating recidivism. Third, the education of offenders provides an avenue for released inmates to be reintegrated into society and to become its productive members.”


e) Future Action

After recalling how imprisonment as punishment has become so integral to our system that societies do not think thy can live without it Mr. Vetere states that: “As long as prison system continue to exist, and indeed to grow, a large number of people will have to live, administer and work in these systems. The quality of their lives will greatly depend on the quality of correctional direction for the future.

Hence, any possible occasion needs to be used to enhance awareness for the rights of prisoners at the international level.”

That’s why Mr. Vetere refers to the forthcoming 11th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of offenders, which will take place in Bangkok from 18 to 24 April 2005. “The provisional agenda of the 11th Congress offers again opportunities to advocate for better prison conditions, such as during the consideration of substantive item 7 on “Making standards work: fifty years of standards-setting in crime prevention and criminal justice” or during workshop two on “Enhancing Criminal Justice Reform Including Restorative Justice.”

In this contest Mr Vetere hopes “that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of Prisoners will be endorsed by the Eleventh Congress.”

In the end Mr Vetere concluded his speech with an auspice: “Therefore and on behalf of all human beings behind bars somewhere on this globe, I sincerely hope that the spirit of this meeting will be taken to Bangkok and that Bangkok will bring us further on the road towards more humane prison conditions worldwide.”


Are human rights of Prisoners at risk? 

After the main speech a panel discussion followed and it was about the kind of risks prisoners take. It was presented by international top experts in this field such as: Bishop Vives Sicilia, from Spain; madame Silvia Casale, president of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT); Mr. Jean Paul Laborde, Director of the United Nations Terrorism Prevention Branch; Baroness Vivien Stern, Secretary of penal reform International; Mr. Joseph Etima, Commissioner of Prison in Uganda.


To see Christ's face in our brothers and sisterr who are in prison

The main speech of the second  day of the meeting was delivered by H.E. Dario Cardinal Castrillòn Hoyos,  President of the Congregation for Clergy.

He began his speech remembering the Holy Father John Paul II, when wanted to visit an inmate in Regina Coeli who shot him on May 13, 1981 in St. Peter square: The aggressor’s name is  Mehmet Alì Agca. The Holy Father wanted to meet Alì Agca in order to…forgive him!

The scene of this meeting reached the people all over the world and it was the most powerful speech the Pope gave about forgiveness.

Card. Hoyos reminded the audience about this event because he wanted to reaffirm the originality of our faith: we the Christians are able to discover Christ’s face in every human being even if, because of sins, it is  disfigured.

-         First of all, said Cardenal Hoyos, the Church has the mission to announce the Gospel everywhere even in Prison. Christ Jesus is the Saviour of all Human kind, especially the most needed of his mercy. He came into the world to give us freedom from sin.

-         Secondly, according to Cardenal Hoyos, a real pastoral prison care should help the inmates to meet personally the Risen Jesus. That is to help people, living in prison, to have a real  experience of faith.

-         Thirdly, the Cardenal pointed out that chaplains are not “prison” chaplains but they are Chaplains of the “people living in prison”.


The chaplain is an  “another Christ” and He has to look for Christ’s face in the people He meets everyday  in prison.

The Chaplains don’t have to forget that the goal they long for is sanctity: “the chaplain is the man who see Christ in all the brothers and try to mould in them the ideal of the new man, created in justice and sanctity,  created in God’s image and likeness.”

Then Mr. Kuhn, President of the ICCPPC, described briefly the commitment the Church had undertaken since the beginning for the sake of prisoners and he said that “the ministry of our Commission is based on this central mission of the Church: to bring the good news of Christ to the whole world. With this clear evangelical attitude, this Commission intends to contribute in preserving and promoting the dignity of the prison community, both residents and personnel, and by working for their integral human and religious development.”. Then he resumed the history of the Commission since its foundation in 1950. It was Card. Montini, later Pope Paul VI who gave the input for the creation of the Commission. “it has therefore existed for more than half century, although its name has changed several times.”

In his speech Mr. Kuhn wanted to focus on the ministry of the Commission, the ways the Commission is working and the challenges that the Commission is facing.

Regarding the ministry Mr Kuhn refer to some basic theological aspects:

“Reconciliation seen under three perspectives: reconciliation with oneself; reconciliation with others; and reconciliation with God. This  forms the guideline for our daily work and experience, underscoring that these three perspectives are closely interrelated and cannot be separated from each other.”

Regarding the main objectives of the Commission Mr Kuhn said that they are:

-         “To encourage within the worldwide Church and Society a greater awareness of and sensitivity to the exercise of prison pastoral care…”

-         To organize training courses for prison chaplains and people working in the prison pastoral ministry

Regarding the challenges the Commission is facing Mr Kuhn stated: 

-         Overcrowding : “We are convinced that many of these incarcerated should not in fact be in prison. Far too often, prison is an inappropriate answer to all kind of social problems…it is beyond doubt that one of the major factors in the cause of crime and criminal behaviour is poverty and social disadvantage…”

-         Violations of human rights of prisoners: The title of our panel yesterday  was a question: Are human rights of prisoners at risk? After all what we have heard and what we prison chaplains have to say, we have to answer this question with “yes” In too many places, human rights of prisoners are at risk! This is, of course and fortunately, not the case everywhere and in all situations…I will refer to just some examples: 

a)      Prisons which do not guarantee the basic requirements for prisoners in terms of food, health care or even shelter. This is especially  the case, but not exclusively, in poor countries…

b)      The problem of minorities in prison must also be highlighted…

c)      Another concern is long periods of detention without trial or without access to legal advice or procedure…

d)      I cannot speak on the question of human rights violations  without mentioning the horror of torture…

e)      In that context, we must never forget people who are in prison for their political opinion or their faith!

f)       I shall also add the right of prisoners to a productive future beyond prison

g)      Our Commission firmly and clearly opposes the use of the death penalty… 

-         Evangelical groups: We face a growing number of evangelical, Pentecostal groups who come to prison for their mission…

Let me conclude, said Mr Kuhn, with the words of Pope John Paul the II when he addresses prisoners on the occasion of the Holy Year 2000: “May the Risen Lord, who entered the Upper Room through closed doors, enter all the prisons of the world and find a welcome in the hearts of those within, bringing peace and serenity to everyone”.

Finally there was  a panel discussion with an opportunity for chaplains to share their experiences in prisons. It was presented by Sister Van Baalen from USA; Rev. Elie Nasr from Lebanon; Rev. Andres Fernandez from Colombia; Mr. Diamante from Philippines; Rev. Dr. Waliggo from Uganda and Deacon Echtermeyer from Germany

After the general debate, Card. Martino made his concluding statement.

Fr. Bruno Oliviero