Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most famous long-term prisoner in history, stated: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
It is difficult to disagree with that statement. Prisons are the mirrors of our civilisation. The quality of prisoners’ lives should be seen as a society’s perception of dignity of life in general.
It is therefore imperative that European countries strictly apply the “European Prison Rules”, a Recommendation of the Council of Europe adopted in 2006. Those rules ensure high standards for health, education, hygiene, legal advice, nutrition, recreation, discipline, and many other aspects of prisoners’ lives. They also contain provisions on the training of prison staff and their conduct and qualification. If implemented properly, those rules set the right framework for a literally correctional penitentiary system.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in many parts of Europe where prisons remain a source of “social infection”. They incubate violence, criminality, drug use, gangs, physical and mental problems – almost all possible vices. They cause a big deal of suffering to their inmates and their families. Their doors are usually revolving: in several Member States, the rates of recidivism and re-imprisonment may exceed 50% in the first five years after the inmates’ release . Some people enter prisons as micro-criminals and exit as professors in crime.
In 2013, the European Prison Observatory carried out two studies providing an overview of prison conditions in Europe . According to both studies, many of the recommendations of the European Prison Rules are not widely respected in the countries examined. Inmates usually live in inadequate space, with no or little privacy. They are sometimes exposed to contacts with gangs, emotional pressure and physical violence. Hygiene standards are often breached, as access to showers is not always guaranteed, hot water may not be available, and sanitary facilities often do not allow for any privacy. Health care services also tend to be sub-standard. The number of practitioners serving in prisons is often insufficient, or covers an insufficient number of hours, sometimes leading to long delays in accessing urgent services. Vocational training is also frequently insufficient, while opportunities to work are very limited, and often far from being useful for reintegration purposes .
Overcrowded space and over-wasted time
Moreover, overcrowding remains a serious problem. European prisons are on average close to full capacity, with inmates occupying over 9 out of 10 available places in 2016, according to the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE). 13 out of 47 prison administrations reported having more inmates than places to host them. The highest levels of overcrowding were observed in “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (132 prisoners per 100 places available), Hungary (132), Cyprus (127), Belgium (120), France (117), Portugal (109), Italy (109), Serbia (109), Albania (108), the Czech Republic (108), Romania (106) and Turkey (103) .
It seems that much needs to be improved. European countries, and especially the EU member states, must allocate serious resources to make sure that prisoners live under dignified conditions and also have a chance to become creative members of the society.
New state-of-the-art prisons must be built. They must urgently replace the overcrowded cages that we euphemistically call “correctional” or “penitentiary” centres.
Every prisoner must occupy his/her private spacious cell, and also obtain space and opportunities to develop his skills and knowledge.
Moreover -and maybe most important- emphasis must be placed on prisoners’ development of professional skills and psychological support to help them with social reintegration after their release.
The reintegration programs should include outdoor contacts, opportunities for education and vocational training, physical and mental health care and drug dependence treatment.
Those programs should also focus on changing behavior and attitudes, including anger management or relapse prevention . Unfortunately today, a lot of prison time is wasted by doing nothing or with activities which are irrelevant or even detrimental to future rehabilitation, such as drug use.
Time to prioritise prison reform
Prison reform is never a priority of any government or any candidate during an election period. Most of prisoners do not vote. Criminals are not influential leaders in their societies –to the contrary!- so political parties do not bother to appeal to them.
But the focus must change. One person suffering in jail entails another two, three, four or more of his/her relatives suffering outside. There are approximately 120 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe – so, according to a back-of-the envelope calculation, one could claim that almost 1% of the population is in prison or in a kind of relationship with a prisoner. Therefore more alternatives to incarceration should be made available, such as paroles under special conditions or community service. Where incarceration is the only option, more funds should be allocated for humane and functional prisons to fully comply with the European Prison Rules.
A high-quality penitentiary system is in the interest of the society. This is also our common moral duty towards the ones who hit bottom in a certain period of their lives.