UN investigator tells of horrors and insanitary conditions of world prisons

Inmates at a prison in Uruguay can spend years in “las latas” (tin cans) — small metal boxes where temperatures rise to 60 degrees Celcius. They had to use the water in the toilets for drinking and defecate in plastic bags which they later threw outside their cells.

Those were among the abuses chronicled in a report released by Manfred Nowak, an Austrian human rights lawyer and U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment and punishment. Nowak’s report focused on “forgotten prisons” and the treatment of children in the dozens of countries he visited. He said roughly 1 million of the world’s 10 million detainees were children, some as young as 9 or 10 years old.

Nowak notes that in many countries the “police and prison authorities simply do not regard it as their responsibility to provide detainees with the most basic services necessary for survival, let alone for a dignified existence or what human rights instruments call an “adequate standard of living”, i.e., food, water, clothing, a toilet and a proper place to sleep.”

The living conditions of prisoners in Equatorial Guinea and Uruguay were shocking.

“”In Equatorial Guinea, detainees spend several weeks or even months in overcrowded, often dark and filthy police cells with virtually nothing but a concrete floor where they are kept for 24 hours a day. It is the task of their families to bring them water in plastic bottles and food in plastic bags. Since there are no toilets, they must use the same bottles to urinate and the plastic bags to defecate. In most police stations, including the police headquarters in Malabo, plenty of filled and stinking plastic bottles and bags had been thrown through the bars to the corridors and open yards.’

“In Uruguay the situation of accused and convicted children who were held in extremely poor conditions was alarming. The system of detention was based on a punitive approach. Children had no opportunities for education, work or any other rehabilitative activity, and the boys were locked up for up to 22 hours a day in their cells. The sanitary conditions were very poor. There were no toilets in the cells, which sometimes forced detainees to wait for hours for a guard to let them go to the toilet. At the Piedras Home, the detainees had to relieve themselves in bottles and plastic bags, which they threw out of the window, resulting in a repulsive smell around the building.”

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, detainees have a right to an
adequate standard of living. This includes cells with sanitary installations “adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature” (rule 12), with “adequate bathing and shower installations” (rule 13) and “with water and with such toilet articles as are necessary for health and cleanliness” (rule 15).

In 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published a handbook on “Water, sanitation, hygiene and habitat in prisons“.

Nowak said that Iran and most Arab countries, except for Jordan, had denied him access to their prisons.

Watch Manfred Nowak outline the main points of his report.

Source: Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, 20 Oct 2009 ; UN, 20 Oct 2009

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