(30 June 2021) The pandemic underlined many of the pre-existing problems in prisons. That was the view of several experts consulted by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. Overcrowding, lack of investment and staff, laws that lead to high numbers of pre-detentions, and the underfunding of public services were mentioned in the exchange of views with European Commissioner Reynders responsible for Justice affairs and MEPs.
EPSU General Secretary was one of the speakers stressing that prison staff have reported consistently higher rates of COVID-19 compared to the rest of the population. Prison staff case rates mirror those of prisoners. Several speakers were calling for prisoners (and migrants in detention centres) to be prioritised for vaccination. This must also apply to prison staff. The poor enforcement of Council of Europe and international standards is problematic and the pandemic has had a negative impact on the right to health care for prisoners. He stressed that these standards make clear that prison personnel should be appointed on a full-time basis with civilian status, adequate salaries and favourable employment benefits and conditions of service. EPSU joined other speakers in demanding progress on EU common standards for detention. With the European arrest warrant and several verdicts of the ECJ this becomes important. They should be based on International and EU standards and developed further in consultation with of trade unions and human rights NGOs. The EU’s social standards should apply and the focus should be on the human relationship and improvements to allow prisoners to function in society. A task for the European Commission is to monitor and promote the application of EU’s legislation on health and safety, working time, gender equality, anti-discrimination, work-life balance. This could help improve the situation. It is the task of the EU Commission to promote social dialogue based on trade union rights and collective bargaining.
A main issue remains prevention reducing prison population. This means investing in other public services: in education, healthcare, social services, prevention services regarding domestic violence, mostly targeting women. Overcrowding does require reducing the use of pre-trial detention and investing in alternatives to imprisonment and in small open or semi-open which work better than large closed prisons. EPSU recalled the EP resolution of - The solution to the problems is not the privatisation of prisons. The experience of the UK and USA is not positive and PPP-type solutions in France and Germany have not improved detention conditions, rehabilitation and working conditions. He recalled the decision of the US President Biden to stop with private prisons.
Other speakers included the director of the European Fundamental Rights Agency Michael O’Flaherty, the UN special rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nils Melzer, and Susanna Marietti a representative of the Italian NGO Antigone campaigning for humane treatment of inmates and reduction of their numbers.
The debate took place 28 June online.
The dbase of the European Fundamental Rights Agency on detentions, access to health care and more and the 2019 report. This is important for judges to decide on cross-border cases. See also the annual report 2021 on COVID19 and prisons p.36
Council of Europe - European Committee on the prevention of Torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment linked to the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
More information on the work of the Un Special Rapporteur
The European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services (EuroPris) has a series of reports on the impact of COvid19 and the measures to contain the spread
For the US experience - “A 2016 report by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General found that private prisons “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [public federal] institutions.” The review also found that private prisons had a 28% higher average rate of inmate-on-inmate assault and more than double the rates of inmate-on-staff assaults compared to public federal prisons.
* Photographer Sadak Souici