The use and over-use of prison around the world

Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, writes on a new report looking at disparities in prison use in ten countries, across five continents.

prison-report-launchMarch 16th saw the launch of our new report, Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world.

Over 40 guests came to the launch (kindly hosted by the law firm Clifford Chance) to hear about the report’s highlights and watch presentations by experts on imprisonment in Brazil and the Netherlands, two of our featured countries. The event was also addressed by speakers from the international human rights NGO, Fair Trials, who co-published the report and are ICPR’s partner on the wider project – of which the new report is the first output.

The human stories behind the data

Given ICPR’s strong focus on prison statistics (as hosts and compilers of the World Prison Brief) we want to ensure this project never loses sight of the many ways prison affects people: not only those imprisoned, but their families, their wider communities and the people who work in prisons.

That is why a core element of our methodology in the wider project is about mapping the ‘custody journey’ in each country. That means drawing on real cases to understand the lived experience of criminal justice and imprisonment – after arrest, in pre-trial detention, during custodial sentences and after release.

Every human story behind a prison statistic has something to tell us about how a particular country uses imprisonment to respond to crime. The importance of listening to the human story came out clearly from the presentation by Jago Russell and Alex Mik of Fair Trials, about their work with individuals who have experienced unfair treatment in criminal justice systems. They played prison-report-launch2a one-minute animation by the Royal College of Art and filmed interviews with three people who have experienced pre-trial detention in different European countries. These can be viewed on Fair Trials’ website.

I was struck by what Jago had said in his Foreword to our report: ‘Statistics alone can sanitise reality – they do not speak to the violence, intimidation and isolation that are part of the daily experience of custody’.

Brazil’s recurring nightmare

Who better to pick up this theme than Dr Sacha Darke, from the University of Westminster? Sacha has visited 30 Brazilian jails and is an expert in the country’s sad history of uncontrolled growth in prisoner numbers – Brazil has seen prisoner numbers increase twenty-fold from around 30,000 in 1973 to over 600,000 today – and the violence and horror this has unleashed. He showed images from recent massacres and riots in prisons in northeast Brazil (discussed on pages 8 to 10 of our report). He then described the importance of prisoner governance, and organised crime group affiliation in Brazil’s prisons. Organised crime groups are by-products of wholly inadequate staff/prisoner ratios. In many of Brazil’s prisons, the role of staff is essentially to guard the perimeter, while prisoner ‘trusties’ are left to organise, arbitrate and discipline on the inside.

It was clear from Sacha’s presentation that Brazil’s prisons have always been in crisis and that there is no real prospect of enough capacity being built to change this. But, on a brighter note, he spoke of his visits to some of the country’s ‘community prisons’. These first emerged in the seventies in São Paulo and, though few in number, they are very different from the hellish, overcrowded prisons that prevail in Brazil. There is close collaboration between the prisons and prisoners’ families and communities. Many ex-prisoners come back as volunteers. Governors and senior managers are often former prisoners. Sacha referred to Fiona Macaulay’s research on Brazil’s community prisons, which have been praised as exceptionally humane in approach.

The Netherlands: reversing the punitive turn?

It was then over to Professor Francis Pakes (University of Portsmouth) to address the question: how did the Netherlands reverse its punitive turn? As explained in our report (page 21), after decades of low imprisonment levels, the Dutch prisoner rate surged from the late eighties, increasing by 200% and peaking at 134 per 100,000 in 2005. Interestingly, despite a strong Dutch tradition of criminology – and good statistical data – there is no consensus on precisely why the subsequent turnaround happened.

After hearing Francis speak, I was confident that in choosing the Netherlands we’d picked the right country to contrast with the high incarcerators featured in this report. There is a lot we can learn from the Netherlands. Maybe our project will contribute to the on-going inquiry about how the Dutch turned around their prison juggernaut.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Understanding and reducing the risk of imprisonment: interview with Catherine Heard

Report authors

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR
Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme
Helen Fair, a Research Fellow at ICPR·

Read the press release about the report.

The World Prison Brief The statistical data in the report are sourced from the World Prison Brief, compiled by Roy Walmsley and hosted and published by ICPR. This unique and internationally renowned online database contains a wealth of information on prisons and the use of imprisonment in 226 independent countries and dependent territories around the world.

The Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) is based at the Law School of Birkbeck, University of London. ICPR conducts policy-oriented, academically-grounded research on all aspects of the criminal justice system. ICPR’s work on this report forms part of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme.

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Why hate Human Rights? Understanding the case against the Human Rights Act

This post was contributed by Dr Frederick Cowell, lecturer in Law at Birkbeck. Dr Cowell’s forthcoming book, ‘Critically Understanding the case against the 1998 Human Rights Act’ is due to be published by Routledge in February 2017. Here, Dr Cowell offers an insight into his current research project behind the book.

The 1998 Human Rights Act is one of the most controversial and misunderstood pieces of legislation in recent history. The Act brought rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), into UK law, allowing them to be used in UK courts. Britain had been a party to the ECHR since the 1950s – Winston Churchill helped shape the Convention and was one of its early supporters – but until the Human Rights Act came into force the EHCR had no force in UK courts.

The Act has come in for a wide variety of criticism on legal, constitutional, political and cultural grounds. In the late 2000s this escalated significantly when politicians seriously considered proposals for its abolition. Media stories about the Human Rights Act have assumed near mythological proportions claiming that the Act gives criminals a right to demand fried chicken from the police and prevents foreign nationals from being deported if they have a cat.

Human rights in the headlines (Images cc Huffington Post)

Human rights in the headlines (Images cc Huffington Post)

Reviewing the recent history of the Act

There was a Commission on a Bill of Rights set up in 2012 which delivered a mixed report with some members of the Commission arguing for a Bill of Rights to compliment the HRA and others arguing that there was no need. The Conservative Party’s proposals for a British Bill of Rights published in 2014 is predicated on repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with an instrument that would give more power to the government and limit the number and type of individuals who would be able to make human rights claims.

The Conservative Party had a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act in their 2015 General Election Manifesto and after they won a majority committed to swiftly publishing proposals for a British Bill of Rights. This has since been pushed back and there is little certainty on when these proposals will be published.

During the debate about the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union various government ministers have expressed contradictory positions on whether the UK should remain part of Council of Europe – the ECHR’s supervisory body, which is a separate institution from the EU. On Monday the House of Lords EU Justice Committee issued a report criticising the limited aims of the bill of rights project recommending that it in its current form it should be abandoned.

About the research project ­ – What’s wrong with the Human rights Act?

This led me to launch a research project last year that asks just what is wrong with the Human Rights Act that necessitates its replacement. This is important as so much of the debate about a British Bill of Rights, and indeed a major reason why this debate is taking place in the first place, is due to the supposed inadequacies and unpopularity of the Human Rights Act. In spite of a range of hostile media coverage, which has cemented certain myths about the Human Rights Act, polling shows that the public remain broadly supportive of the Act and strongly support the universal applicability of certain rights, such as the right to a fair trial. However, in connection to certain issues, such as whether serving prisoners should have the right to vote, the public are a lot more hostile towards the Human Rights Act and human rights in general.

Dr Frederick Cowell

Dr Frederick Cowell

This project is an edited volume with contributors from academia and practice, critically analysing the arguments levelled against the Human Rights Act. There are several main strands of argument in the case against the Human Rights Act. The constitutional argument, which has been made principally by legal and constitutional experts, contends that the Act is dangerously distorting crucial elements of the UK’s constitution. Others have argued that UK’s tradition of common law rights and civil liberties make the need for rights protection by the ECHR superfluous.

Equally there has been scholarship from the other direction suggesting that the Human Rights Act has enhanced the UK’s constitution or is part of its gradual evolution. These arguments are evaluated alongside high profile issues, such as immigration and terrorism, where the Human Rights Act is widely criticised. Some of these arguments are predicated upon pervasive media misrepresentations about human rights and organisations such as Rights Info have endeavoured to unpick some of these myths. What this work aims to do is examine these arguments in depth and see how a Bill of Rights would be any different in these cases.

Whilst the plans for a British Bill of Rights remain uncertain understanding why hostility to the Human Rights Act occurs and the social and legal structures that are behind it, helps better understand the role that human rights play in society and the challenges that different mechanisms for rights protection might face.

Find out more

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The World Prison Brief: database of global imprisonment levels

This post was contributed by Roy Walmsley, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies’ world-renowned World Prison Brief. In November ICPS was merged with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in Birkbeck’s School of Law.

iStock_000012313253XLargeThe aim of the World Prison Brief (WPB) is to enable more well-informed discussion about appropriate levels of imprisonment and about issues such as the use of imprisonment for women, the use of pre-trial imprisonment and the problems of prison overcrowding; and to contribute to the making of sound evidence-based decisions by all who are endeavouring to improve prison systems worldwide.

The WPB was launched in September 2000. It contributes to the knowledge base on the use of imprisonment by giving details of prison population levels in over 220 independent countries and dependent territories. It shows the variations in practice in different countries, regions and continents and makes it possible to estimate the world prison population total (over 10 million). It also gives information on the proportion of pre-trial, female, juvenile and foreign prisoners in the total, as well as on the official capacity of each prison system and its occupancy rate, thus indicating the level of overcrowding. Recent trends in prison population levels are also shown.

The information comes from a variety of sources, principally the national prison administration, the Ministry responsible for the prison administration or the national statistical office. So these are official figures and they are obtained from publications by these bodies (including annual reports and data on official websites), direct communication with contacts in the prison administrations, responses of these bodies to international surveys etc. Sometimes information comes via a third party (e.g. an international body or a non-governmental organisation) and such material is used when the source is established as reliable and the data consistent with what is already known about prison population levels in the country concerned. Information is collected on an ongoing basis and the website is updated monthly with data obtained during the previous month.

It is essential that the information should be as reliable as possible. This is of course dependent first of all on the reliability of the data published by the official bodies in the countries concerned. In practice the main difficulty encountered – apart from the fact that so many countries do not publish prison population numbers, or do so only rarely – is incompleteness of data. This can result, for example, from the omission in some countries of figures for a part of their country that is separately administered and in other countries the omission of data on persons whose pre-trial detention occurs in police facilities instead of prisons. When this is known to be occurring the WPB draws attention to it alongside the official figures.

Ensuring the reliability of data also depends on validating it carefully. Newspaper reports quite often quote a prison department or Ministry official giving a figure that is obviously wrong. All new figures are compared with data previously recorded in order to minimise the chances of mistaken information appearing in the WPB.

The WPB is the only source of comparative data on prison systems worldwide and is regularly quoted in briefings by Governments, by inter-governmental bodies such as the OHCHR, UNESCO and OECD, by NGOs and pressure groups, in academic articles and journals and in the media.

Academics use  the data in the WPB to explore policies that lead to higher or lower rates of imprisonment  issue, and politicians, NGOs and think tanks use the data in arguments against the introduction of policies that will lead to a higher rate of imprisonment relative to comparable countries.

That the WPB is considered relevant in prison policy-making circles around the world is evident from the fact that the comparative figures appear in prison administration annual reports in many countries. There is widespread sensitivity to the ranking position in which a country is shown to be, particularly in comparison with its nearer neighbours.

Sometimes it is clear that national policy is quite directly being influenced; governments occasionally send up-to-date figures so as to demonstrate that their situation has improved – numbers have come down – since the figure that the WPB was showing. One government has developed a project to introduce reforms that are designed, in the words of their published report, ‘to eliminate their country from the 50 that are leading in terms of prison population’.

The WPB has, therefore, affected the discourse on the use of imprisonment among governments, academics, NGOs and think tanks. The ability to compare a country’s prison population level with that of its neighbours, the rest of its continent and the rest of the world has caused administrations to think more deeply about their own use of imprisonment.

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