Monday, December 12, 2011

The evils of Europe's overcrowded prisons

Without any audible fanfare, the European Union took a significant leap this month towards a common system of criminal law. By 5 December, its governments were supposed to implement a 2008 decision requiring each of them to recognise judgments delivered in another EU state. In principle, this will make it easier to extradite prisoners. In practice, it could make it easier for human rights to be abused.

This move follows the ill-conceived introduction of a European arrest warrant. Around the time of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the arrest warrant was touted as a necessary weapon in George W Bush’s “war on terror”. There appeared to be an understanding then that warrants would be restricted to serious offences. Yet some EU governments have sought extradition for every conceivable misdemeanour.

Poland is addicted to issuing cross-border arrest warrants and has seen fit to do so in cases where the offence was no more serious than the theft of a dessert (I kid you not). Although the Polish authorities have been rapped on the knuckles by Scotland Yard, the London police headquarters, for issuing a large number of trivial extradition requests, it appears that they are still dishing out warrants in a trigger-happy manner. The latest data collated by the Union’s Council of Ministers indicates that Poland issued 3,753 warrants for the arrest of suspects in other EU countries during 2010. Admittedly, that is a slight decline on 2009, when the corresponding figure was 4,844.

Yet the 2010 numbers still show that Poland retains its lead. Its nearest rival Germany issued 2,096 European arrest warrants last year.

The Polish authorities have nothing to be proud of. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which belongs to the 47-country Council of Europe, recently published the results of its probe into Poland’s detention facilities. It criticised the cells managed by police in the southern city of Rybnik for being “poorly ventilated, dirty, smelly and badly maintained.”

Unacceptable detention of children

The CPT did not mince its words when referring to the conditions in which children were kept in Bedzin and Katowice, where they were forced to remain in their pyjamas throughout the day. No outdoor exercise was allowed in Bedzin, while it Katowice outdoor sport was only allowed in the summer. “Such a state of affairs is not acceptable,” the committee stated.

Reading the graphic description of the Rybnik cells reminded me of a meeting I had last year with a Dutchman who went through a hellish experience after Poland demanded his extradition. Robert H├Ârchner was held for a number of months in a prison in Bydgoszcz, a northern Polish city where he once worked. I felt queasy as he told me of how there was a constant stench of urine and faeces in the cell he shared with eight or nine others, all of whom had to use the same toilet. Going out to an exercise yard did not give him much respite: it was infested with rats.

H├Ârchner insisted that he was innocent of the allegations against him: that cannabis was grown on a property he leased. I believe that he told me the truth. But even if I had doubts, I would still query why he was extradited. Have the Polish police not got something more to worry about than the cultivation of weed?

Jailed without a conviction

I was astonished to learn that 21% of the 643,000 people in the EU’s prisons have not actually been convicted of a crime. Instead, they are in pre-trial detention.

The widespread use of pre-trial detention contravenes the European Prison Rules, to which all of the Union’s states are nominally committed. They emphasise that imprisonment should be a last resort.

Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, promised during 2010 to put pressure on all EU governments to live up to their responsibilities on improving prison conditions. Her pledge is commendable, yet I’m not holding my breath. Most, if not all, of the centre-right parties that dominate Europe’s governments have a narrow focus on law and order. While an analysis by the Quaker Council on European Affairs has indicated that many justice ministries are amenable to exploring community service and other alternatives to detention, convincing entire governments to change their ways will not be easy. (I certainly don’t wish to sound despondent; vigorous human rights activism has notched up many triumphs in the past).

Another frightening statistic is that 19 Council of Europe countries have prison capacity rates of more than 90%. According to the Jean-Marie Delarue, the controller-general for detention facilities in France, some French prisons have occupation rates exceeding 200%.

The London-based group Fair Trials International has estimated that pre-trial detention costs the EU’s governments a total of €4.8 billion per year.

Just as building more roads is an environmentally destructive response to traffic congestion, building more jails would be a socially destructive response to prison overcrowding. In 2006, Scotland’s inspector for prisons listed “nine evils” of overcrowding; among them were that prison staff were unable to devote sufficient care to mentally ill detainees; a build-up in tension; a deterioration in food quality and; competition for sources of education and entertainment.
None of those evils could be considered necessary. If the EU wants to have a common system of criminal justice, the major flaws in the detention policies of its governments should be remedied. A good first step would be to make pre-trial detention the exception, not the rule.

●First published by New Europe, 12 December 2011.

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