enemies or prisoners as citizens? – the responsibility of the State
delivered by Vivien Stern, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre
for Prison Studies, Kings College London,
the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care Congress
Prisons in the Third Millennium Challenge the Church, State and Society
Being here today is for me an enormous privilege. I
am very conscious of the honour you have done me by inviting me. I have visited
prisons in several parts of the world and in those visits I have been very
conscious of the work
you do, your influence for good and your struggles for justice.
Being here makes me think of someone whose memory
should be honoured and I am grateful to be able to do that here. His name was
Father Francisco Reardon and he came from Boston. But he had lived in Sao Paulo
in Brazil most of his working life. Everyone called him Padre Chico. He
was Coordinator of Brazil's Bishops Council's Prison Ministry. He
was a tireless worker on behalf of the prisoners of Brazil. He produced a stream
of documents publicising the ill-treatment that they suffered and the abuses
they endured. He took up the cause in particular of sick prisoners, those
suffering from HIV and AIDS, paraplegics in prison, women ill-treated and
He sympathised too with the position of the prison
guards. They were badly-paid, working in overcrowded and understaffed prisons.
They had no training and no prospects. For him the plight of all the people in
prison was a passion and not just another cause.
I was with him once in Porto Allegre in Brazil for a conference. As part of it
we visited the central prison. It was a large site
surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. The prison was handed over to the
military police to run as a 6-month emergency measure after there was a mass
breakout. That was five years earlier. The emergency power was renewed every six
months. There were about 2000 prisoners there. We went first to the area where
the women visitors were strip searched and internally inspected. The internal
searching was not done by a female medical worker in a discreet side room. It
was done in one of six small booths without doors. Each had a little platform
and a strategically placed spotlight. The naked woman had to stand on the
platform and perform a number of gyrations and knee bends with the spotlight on.
walked down the passage to the living quarters we passed several cages, like
those in a zoo, holding prisoners. A number of prisoners were chosen as
assistants to the guards. They wore orange vests. They controlled the prisoners
and the guards controlled them. The function of the guards, who were wearing
bullet-proof vests, seemed to be to
be stationed along the corridors at regular intervals of about three metres
apart holding a gun at the ready. Some of the guards standing in the corridors
were wearing blue rubber gloves and masks - presumably for fear of infection.
Some prisoners were waiting to go from one location to another and found
themselves in the corridor when visitors were passing. As soon as they saw the
visitors they turned their faces to the wall and lowered their heads. The
visitors walked in silence past a row of backs and lowered heads. There was a
yellow line painted on the floor of the corridor to show the area where
prisoners had to walk. The other side of the line was for non-prisoner people to
Padre Chico talked to the prisoners. It was in
Portuguese of course so I did not
understand what he was saying. But I did not need to because it was clear that
for them suddenly a light went on. He talked to them with respect and humanity.
He asked each one his name. He
smiled and chatted. The prisoners changed before my eyes. They changed
from being the frightened, humiliated, different beings, who had to turn
their face to the wall when visitors, civilised citizens from the outside world,
came by. They changed into equal human beings.
He achieved that with a few words and a smile, and
the respect that shone out of him, a respect for each prisoner as an individual.
Padre Chico died suddenly of a heart attack on 19 November 1999 aged 59. The
prisoners of Brazil mourned. And so did the prison reformers of the world.
Someone wrote about him -‘he gave us the courage to fight for this our
particularly difficult cause’. And that he certainly did. He always made me
feel that what my colleagues and I were doing in a little way with scant
success, trying to reform the prisons of the world, was heroic work.
I am glad I am speaking today to an audience that will understand how important
he was and why we should honour his memory.
The way he worked was important too, for our
conference here and for the topic you have given me, that is, the prison and the
responsibility of the State. He cared for the prisoners. He also cared for the
guards, the State agents, the poorly paid State servants from the same
backgrounds as the prisoners. He met them and their representatives. He dealt
regularly also with the bosses, the Directors of the prison administrations and
the people responsible in the Government. He assumed that they felt as badly as
he did about the state of the prisons and wanted to put it right.
here is a clear illustration of the first half of my title, ‘prisoners as
enemies or prisoners as citizens?’. The central prison in Porto Alegre saw
prisoners as enemies. The prison was a place where people were taken solely to
remove them, as if they were plague-ridden, a contagion. The aim of the
institution where they were kept was to hold them, to prevent them from rising
up against their confinement and to humiliate them and their families in order
to break their spirit. It was a form of internment, a sort of concentration
camp, in many ways worse than the Russian gulag system.
must be civilian institutions
that leads to me my first point about the responsibilities of the State. All the
international human rights instruments and requirements make it clear beyond all
doubt that prisons must not be like internment camps or concentration camps.
Prisons are not places to hold people deemed to be enemies of the state. Prisons
have nothing to do with the military or defence, or enemies. In a democratic
society prison is a public service. Prisons are places like schools and
hospitals. They should be run by the civil power. They should have the objective
of contributing to the public good. Therefore prison authorities should have
some accountability to an elected parliament. The public should be regularly
informed about the state and aspirations of the prisons. Government ministers
and senior officials should make clear that they hold prison staff in high
regard for the work they do. The public should frequently be reminded that
prison work is an important public service. So first of all, the State’s
responsibility is to run prisons as part of civilian society, as a public
service accountable to Parliament.
duty of care
Now for my second point. Father David Cullen is a White Father. He works in
Zambia and has been there for many years. He writes emails to his friends. One
recent one described his daily work:
Wednesday I said Mass in one of the four prisons I go to, Mwembeshi, some 50 km
out of the city. I celebrate the Mass on a
table under a tree and the inmates sit on the ground and are very
attentive. The majority of them surely not Catholics. I take a group from the
parish, usually to do the singing, many of them coming from our shantytown,
Misisi. They like to collect money to give the prisoners something. Last
Wednesday each of the 250 prisoners got a little packet
of salt and a piece of fairy soap, each bar being cut into five pieces.
The prison authorities dont give out soap and often not salt to put
into the dull, meagre one meal a day the men get, so the inmates were
delighted with what they received. Scabies is a big problem and at times we take
what is required to kill the lice and bed bugs.
Last Thursday I went to the women’s prison for Mass, again under a tree and
competing with a strong wind. I always take a couple of drums with me, As usual
there were a few problems, food and clothing for the children with their
mothers, contacting lawyers who seem slow in coming to see their clients…
Last Sunday I was in still another prison, the Central. There some 1300 men at
least are herded into a very small space, with no room to lie down at night
because of the cramped conditions. After Mass again I had a list of needs, the
most urgent being that the leader of the Catholic Community, Moses, has to go
for an operation next week, and has to find about £7 to pay for it. Also there
are 78 TB patients in the prison, and with the congestion, it surely gets passed
on to others. Also there is a chronic outbreak of scabies, and about three
quarters of the prison population have rashes on their bodies. They had hoped to
control it sometime ago, but again its got the upper hand.’
A man doing great work – but he should not have to do such work. And the
prisoners should not be living in such conditions.
My first point was that the prison should be a
civilian public institution. My second is that however poor the country, and
however low the standard of living, the state once it locks up a human being,
has a duty of care to that person. It is no answer to say ‘everyone is poor’
and ‘prisoners are at the end of the line, the least deserving’. All the
international human rights instruments make that very clear beyond any doubt.
The State has deprived them of their liberty and the State must provide for them
the basics for life, food, water, clothing, bedding, light, air and health care.
Above all it must protect the right to life.
Yet in all our countries prisons are places of
great violence, sickness and unnatural deaths. Here are some recent examples.
‘02 May 2002 17 killed in fire started deliberately by prisoners in a prison
in Algeria’. ‘November 2002 prison rebellion leaves 10 dead in Brazil’.
‘20 February 2002 Three prisoners killed in Salvadorean prison
uprising’. ‘March 2002 Three dead in Venezuelan prison gunfight’.
Let me give you a specific example from England. In July a report was published
of an enquiry into the death of a young prisoner. He was called Zahid Mubarak.
He was 19 and he was in prison for three months for stealing some razorblades.
He was sharing a cell with a boy called Robert who was mentally ill and was in
pre-trial detention. The two should have been separated because of their
different status. Pre-trial and sentenced prisoners should be held separately.
In England we ignore that. Robert had very racist views. He did not like black
people. Zahid was of Pakistani origin. On Zahid’s last night in prison Robert
used a table leg to beat Zahid unconscious. Then he called the prison personnel
and said ‘Something has happened to my cellmate.’ Zahid died a week later. A
prison officer asked Robert why he did it and he said: ‘I just did it’.
Another example from England. There is an English couple I know called Mr and
Mrs Edwards. They had a son called Christopher. Sometimes he had bad attacks of
mental illness. One night when he was 21 he was arrested for breaking a window,
charged, and sent to prison. He was locked up in a cell with another man. In the
morning he was found battered to death. His ear was torn off and lying in one
corner of the cell. He had been killed by the other man in the cell.
Mr and Mrs Edwards felt very strongly that it should not have happened. Their
son should have been protected. They went to court and they went to the European
Court of Human Rights. Eventually after 8 years the Court ruled that the British
Government had failed in its duty to care for that prisoner. Now Mr and Mrs
Edwards are devoting their time to prison reform and the promotion of
and inherent dignity
These are basics. Once we have thought about the basics of the place of prison
in the machinery of government and the duty of the State to protect prisoners
from harm there is another important question. What sort of place should a
prison be. Well, we have some guidance on this. Article Ten of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes it clear what the ethical basis of
imprisonment should be.
persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with
respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
That is the duty of the State towards its
prisoners. What does humanity and with
respect for the inherent dignity of the human person mean?
The answer to that question lies in the body of UN instruments and
instruments of other bodies such as the African Charter on Human and
Peoples' Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the European
Convention on Human Rights. And it also lies in the ethical sense of each
individual who works in prison, visits prison or sends people to prison. Adele
Price, a thalidomide victim with no arms or legs, was sent to prison for seven days for contempt of court by an
English judge. She suffered terribly in those seven days. The European Court of
Human Rights found that her treatment in prison amounted to inhuman and
degrading treatment. One of the judges, in the judgement, said .
my opinion, everyone involved in the applicant’s imprisonment – the judge,
police and prison authorities – contributed towards this violation’ (of
Article 3 prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment ). It requires no special
qualification, only a minimum of ordinary human empathy, to appreciate the
situation of Adele Price.
Let us look at how humanity, respect for the
inherent dignity of the human person, and ordinary human empathy, are manifested
in various prison settings.
I want to do a comparison of the way two systems
deal a major deprivation of liberty, that is separation from loved ones, loss of
the right to enjoy family life. I will give you a picture of how this aspect is
dealt with in an English prison, not a specific one but a composite, based on
recent official documents and on my own observation.
The prisoners have family visits for one hour twice
a month. They meet in a room with tables and chairs screwed to the floor. They
are watched from a control room on closed circuit television. The cameras are so
powerful they can read the writing on a crisp packet. The prisoners and the
visitors sit on different coloured chairs. And the prisoners wear a sort of
tabard, a waistcoat-type garment. There is a system of good behaviour grades
which puts prisoners on levels one to three. The prisoners on the top level get
TV in their cells and more family visits. The prisoners on the lowest grade wear
different coloured tabards from the other prisoners when they see their
There are dogs, sniffer dogs, who sniff at all the visitors for drugs. Anyone
who might have been contaminated by any contact with someone using drugs in the
past 24 hours will be sniffed out and sent away or told they must have their
visit behind glass with no contact.
want to share with you a different experience. This is a large prison in a Latin
American country. It was built for 800 prisoners and now holds 4500 prisoners. I
visited with my camera and the prisoners urged me constantly to take their
picture. The prison was run by the police – not penitentiary police but the
regular police service. It was
visiting day. Visitors can stay from 10 am to about 4 pm. There were about 1500
women coming in. There were no sniffer dogs or X-rays. A manual search of
shopping bags took place. Maybe the visitors had to pay the policeman a small
amount to be allowed to bring their bags in. They got into the prison and joined
the big crowd that was wandering around. Everyone was wandering around,
prisoners, family members. There were shops selling their produce, a bank, a
pawnshop, a delicatessen. For the first time in many years of prison visiting I
saw a blind man shaking his tin and begging in the prison yard. The family
members were heading for the living quarters where each prisoner, except those
who had more money to spend on bribing the guards, lived in a private space of
about 2 square metres.
I hope that my comparison shows that most prison systems have strengths and
weaknesses. It is not obvious that
one country’s model is better than another’s. There is no model of the right
prison. Prison is an intensely cultural institution. The models of imprisonment
in Western Europe and North America are imbued with Christian ideas of guilt,
punishment and atonement. They are modelled on the monastery with individual
rooms that are called cells. The Russian concept is of banishment and work. In
the East, in China and Japan, the aim is to remould the person of into
conformity. In other parts of the world the whole idea of the prison as the main
punishment for crime is an imposition, a colonial legacy, and still sits
uneasily in the thinking of Africa or India. What it is deemed right to take
away from prisoners is cultural. What prisoners will see as legitimate
deprivations and what they will not accept is also rooted in their ideas of
right and wrong.
is universal is the need to run prisons according to an ethical framework, based
on Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The
prison business has to be an ethical business. Locking up people has to be done
within an ethical framework. Without a strong ethical context the situation
where one group of people has considerable power over another can easily become
an abuse of power.
The ethical context is not just a matter of the behaviour of individual staff
towards prisoners. A sense of the ethical basis of imprisonment needs to pervade
the management process from the top down. It must be imparted to all personnel
working in the prison as the guiding principle of their work.
If you look at the mission statement of the Uganda department of prisons
for example, you will see that the Prison Service requires all these involved in
it to be guided by a belief in the ‘dignity and worth of individuals’.
That is also the role of the State. And this is my third point - the State must
make clear at all times that whatever people have done, however bad they are,
however much the public feels violent hatred towards them, prison personnel have
a duty to behave decently towards them and protect them. In a newly independent
Central European country one night a man accused of child murder was taken into
prison. The child he was accused of murdering was the child of a prison guard.
The following morning the accused man was found dead in his cell. He had been
violently assaulted and killed. The Director-General of that country’s prison
system, a good man who would never have sanctioned such a thing,
was sacked the same day. It sends a message.
Many prison personnel have a very strong sense of
their duty to treat prisoners ‘with humanity and respect for the inherent
dignity of the human person’. Throughout the world, I have seen examples of
prison personnel acting out of sheer human empathy, showing what a difference
individuals can make.
I think of the prison doctor in Kazakhstan, working in what is called a TB
colony. That is a special prison for sentenced prisoners who are seriously ill
with TB. (IN Russia there are 45 of them, holding about 1000 prisoners each and
that is not enough places for all the people who need TB treatment). He had few
medical resources, few medicines, and the medical staff had no masks. He was so
poorly paid he wore battered shoes but no socks. A visiting foreign doctor asked
him, who do you do this? You could work in a civilian hospital?’ His reply was
‘I am a doctor. They are sick’. He got TB. He was away from work for a long
time. After treatment he came back to his work in the prison hospital.
I think of the prison officer I met in Malawi, in
Africa, who took a sick prisoner to hospital on the handlebars of his bicycle
because they had no transport.
There is the woman prison director in New Zealand who stood up to her hierarchy
and threw out the male-dominated rule-book. She redesigned the prison for women
as a place of healing and reintegration for the damaged and abused women she was
There is the head of the prisons run by the army in the Dominican Republic (some
prisons there are run by the police and some by the military – there is no
prison service). He is a military man. He saw how many people he was locking up
in his prisons who should not have been there. He organised the military lawyers
to provide legal advice to the prisoners and thus managed to release 400
prisoners who were being held illegally.
Many more prison personnel are capable of these things. They are the key to the
right treatment of prisoners. The State has a duty to its prison personnel, to
provide them with proper pay, proper training,
an opportunity to use their initiative and proper recognition. And that
is my fourth point, the State’s responsibility towards the prison personnel.
basics of penal reform
I have been involved in this strange, fascinating and tragic world of
incarceration for over 25 years. I have had many ideas about penal reform in
that time, many of them subsequently proved quite wrong. I now think there are
two basic things one should aim at. One, get as many people as possible out of
prison and two, get as many people as possible from the outside, non-prison
world, into prisons.
Let me start with the first. There are 8.7 million prisoners in the world,
roughly. 2.16 million of these are
in the United States, giving an imprisonment rate per 100,000 of 702. The United
States has 5% of the world’s population and 23% of the world’s prisoners. The highest imprisoner in
the European Union is England and Wales with 140 per 100,000 of the general
population. This high imprisonment rate is not the result of rises in crime
reflected in rises in prison sentences. It is a result of a devaluing of
liberty, a climate which allows liberty to be taken away promiscuously.
A young man in England was sent to prison for three months for knocking the head
off a statue of Mrs. Thatcher. A woman failed to make sure that her daughters
went to school. The background was a sad one. The family had been upset since
the daughters had come home one day and found their beloved grandmother dead in
the house. The woman was sent to prison for two months for not sending her
children to school, but the court reduced the sentence to one month when the
A man put on a diving suit and dived into ponds and lakes near golf courses to
collect stray golf balls. He then sold them. He had been doing it for 10 years.
He got 6 months imprisonment and served 9 days in prison before the Appeal court
changed it to a conditional discharge.
In so many countries most of the prisoners in prison are not sentenced to
anything. They are waiting for their trial and sometimes they wait longer than
the time they could have served in prison if found guilty. I was in Malawi some
years ago, in a large prison. I asked the prisoners to form into lines, a line
for those who had been waiting for their trial for 10 years, 5 years and three
years. The longest line was the five years. It was too long.
The duty of care and the duty to provide proper work for personnel means that
prisons cannot be so overcrowded and resources so stretched. Therefore, States
need to look again at their use of imprisonment. It can be done. Russian reduced
its prison population recently by 150,000. Canada too has reduced its prison
population. Imprisonment is costly and unnecessary imprisonment is damaging to
the social fabric. Prisons are a threat to public health and in some countries a
short prison sentence can become a death sentence.
Who is in the prisons of the world. Are they filled with the serious, the
violent, the organised gangsters and the racketeers?
Hardly. They are filled with the poor, the children who have graduated
from the orphanages and the reformatories, the addicted and the mentally ill. I
think of Johnno Warramarrba. He was a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy from Australia,
that is, a child, and subject to all the protections of the Convention on the
Rights of the Child. He stole stationery worth less than £20 but it was his
second offence of stealing small items. In the Northern territories where he
lived the penalty for a first property offence is a warning.
The penalty for the second is a month’s imprisonment. He seemed
bewildered when the sentence was passed. The solicitor in the court, trying to
explain the mandatory sentencing laws asked him. ‘Do you understand why you
are going to jail and why you have been convicted.?’ Johnno replied, ‘Yes,
because I am black’.
He got 28 days in a detention centre. Four days before the end of his sentence
he hanged himself with his bed sheet.
I think of the poor women imprisoned in the Caribbean for dealing in small
amounts of substances grown all over the hillsides , substances that suddenly
became illegal and heavily punishable because of the wish of the great power
Many people in prison should not be there. But more people from outside do need
to be there, in prison, alongside the prisoners and the personnel, showing that
the prison is part of society and that prisoners are citizens, ensuring that the
values of the outside world, the non-carceral society, are brought right into
the prison yard and onto the prison wing.
High profile visits to prisons by world figures serve to remind governments and
people that prisoners are citizens. In July 2000 Pope
John Paul visited the overcrowded and dilapidated Regina Coeli prison in Rome.
He spoke of a prison system with ‘human features’ and ‘a penal system more
in conformity with human dignity.’
There are other ways of bringing people in that
also give prisoners a chance to show that they wish to remain part of the
community and to be seen as citizens who can make a contribution. In the North
of England in a poor part of a medium sized town, a local park built by the
Victorians has been refurbished. Much of the work has been paid for but some has
come free because the prisons in the neighbourhood of the town have all become
involved in the refurbishment of the park. The parks people went to the prisons.
They did not say, ‘We have come to help you’. They said ‘We have a problem. Can you help us?’.
The prisoners have mended all the park benches, refurbished the boats on the
lake, recreated the roller skating rink, built replica railing in the Victorian
style, and grown Victorian flowers. The park is covered with little plaques
saying ‘this bench was
refurbished by prisoners at such and such a prison’. The project has had a lot
of publicity. Already, the community in the town has a different image of the
prisoners, that they are all not
bad, not completely selfish; they can think about other people and so
maybe they are worthy of some respect. The prison and the community are
forging a new relationship and the idea is spreading throughout England.
Prisoners are getting a chance to make their peace with the community they have
Also in England we now have some projects where the churches outside prison are
taking on some responsibility for prisoners. These projects are based on the
model of the Canadian community chaplaincy. They are working with the chaplains
in the prisons to make arrangements
for prisoners before they are released and taking responsibility for them when
they come out.
In some States in India long-term prisoners often those convicted of murder are
leaving the prison after a few years and going to live with their families in
small prison villages, where there are a couple of prison guards for security,
where the prisoners work, the children go to school.
Speaking at the pan-African penal reform conference
in Kampala in 1995, William Omaria, Minister of State for Internal Affairs in
‘One day in the distant future, people will
probably look back on what happens in most countries today and wonder how we
could do that to our fellow human beings in the name of justice.’
We need to think about new ideas. Can the prison
become a different place, a place where the deprivation and the cruelty is
minimised, where prisoners are held securely but seen as citizens, allowed to
express their altruism and their humanity? Can the prison become a place where
the emphasis is on the chance for the prisoner to make his or her peace with
society through restitution and restoration?