Looking beyond the Borders: Improving Correctional Standards Worldwide

Article excerpt

June 2001, Scotland -- A court of law ruled that inmate Robert Napier of the Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Scotland, he placed in better conditions because his prison cell constituted "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The court reached its conclusion because Napier had to use a bucket as a toilet in a cell shared with other inmates and was only allowed out of his cell one hour per day. The case, which had significant repercussions, was brought to trial under the British Human Rights Act, passed in 1998, that, incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into United Kingdom law. The Napier case was the first to succeed in the British courts under this act.

When deciding what is permissible regarding the treatment of inmates, many countries look beyond their borders and consider international conventions they have signed or regional treaties they have ratified. For example, 43 European countries, from the Arctic Circle to the Rock of Gibraltar and from the Republic of Ireland to Vladivostock, are bound by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The convention, which entered into force as a European treaty in September 1953, establishes the inalienable rights and freedoms of each citizen and obliges all states that have ratified the convention to guarantee these rights. Of the world's 8.7 million inmates, 1.9 million are held in states that have ratified the convention and, therefore, are subject to the protection of this treaty and the judgments of the European Court on Human Rights. The court, which was set up under the treaty, consists of judges from the countries that have ratified the treaty. However, the judges s it on the court in their individual capacities and do not represent any country. Individuals who claim that their rights have been violated can apply to the court to have their cases heard. A legal aid scheme is available for applicants who cannot afford a lawyer. The court hears cases brought under all aspects of the Human Rights Convention, such as the right to family life and property, freedom of expression and matters concerning unfair treatment in the legal system, and inhumane prison conditions.

For many non-European countries, United Nations conventions and standards regarding the treatment of inmates constitute an external reference point. A significant amount of prison reform activity taking place in the world is aimed at bringing correctional systems closer to adherence to requirements and guidelines. In countries as far apart as Chile, Kazakhstan and Nigeria, laws are being amended and staff are being retrained so their methods can be aligned with international community expectations.

For many ministries of justice and correctional administrators and staff, these international instruments constitute the ethical and legal framework against which policies for the treatment of inmates are developed and tested. Although the international community does not have effective enforcement methods to ensure that rules are followed, they are still influential.

Countries strive to follow the international community for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they wish to gain international approval or shed international disapproval. Other times, they are in the process of moving from a dictatorship to a democracy and see humane and respectful treatment of inmates as part of their new ideology. On occasion, prison reform may be stimulated by a desire to join an international grouping. For example, Turkey is involved in a major justice reform program linked to its application to join the European Union. In addition, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch use the international instruments as the standard against which they judge the prison system in any particular country. For instance, the 1995 Human Rights Watch report, Children in Confinement in Louisiana, bases its analysis on "the standards, both international and national, which apply to children in confinement. …