Perspectives on European jail management and human rights protection

, by Michele Valente

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Perspectives on European jail management and human rights protection
The Halden prison in Norway is regarded as one of the world’s most humane prisons. Photo: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet (CC BY 2.0)

The focus on national prison administration in European countries has often been placed on managerial inefficiencies and inadequate conditions of detention. Problems and perspectives on European justice systems are the topics dealt with by the Italian Finestra sull’Europa group (FISE, “Window on Europe”) in its the November publication made with media partners Metro, and [1] Michele Valente, who engages with the group, gives an overview of European and global reports on prison matters, including overcrowding.

A global perspective on prison matters

The 2017 ’Space’ report, commissioned by the Council of Europe at the University of Lausanne (based on data referring to 2016), shows that the total prison population in 47 European countries is about 860,000 prisoners (excluding Russia); an increase of 2.2% compared to 2015, and corresponding to one inmate for every 741 inhabitants. Which are the main problems, the costs of penal institutions and, above all, the profile of prisoners? In 42 countries, considering the same year, the resources allocated to the prison administration amounted to about €19 billion, equal to €51 per person, down by 4% compared to 2014. The penalties arose from crimes such as theft (18.9%), drug dealing (17.5%), robbery (12.6) and murder (12.1) with convictions, in most cases, from one to three years.

This year, Morag McDonald from the University of Birmingham denounced the impact of prison overcrowding on the physical and mental health of detainees. According to the Penal Reform International report, there are about 10.3 million people in excess of the capacity of prisons in the world, with 22 national prison systems that exceed the capacity more than twofold, and a further 27 that range between 150-200% capacity. The trend is growing in the Caribbean countries, Russia and Turkey, while high prison overcrowding rates prove to be a global trend. In 2018, Howard League for Penal Reform identified the lack of staff and resources as causes of the simultaneous increase in the number of people detained, violence, drug abuse and mental disorders. In 2015, according to the report commissioned by Council of Europe, there was a peak of deaths in prison (31 per 10,000 detainees), many of which by suicide (on average 15.6%), in addition to a 35% increase in violence in cell and a 40% increase in violence towards the staff.

Perspectives from Italy and the EU

Marcelo Aebi, one of the ’Space’ report’s curators, said that “Alternative sanctions are really necessary but they must be real alternatives, in other words, they must be applied systematically to prevent people from going to jail”. NGO activism has led, over the years, to the establishment of “hubs for the discussion of effective alternatives to detention”. This is one of the goals of the European Alternatives to Detention Network (ATD) which last year launched regional-level pilot projects in three European countries (Bulgaria, Cyprus and Poland).

In its report on alternatives to detention, the European Programme for Integration and Migration said that “case management stabilises irregular immigrants [who are] at risk of detention or were previously in detention and helps them engage with immigration procedures to work towards case resolution while living in the community.” It adds that “of the total of 93 people in the pilots, the vast majority (97%) remained engaged with immigration procedures through case management-based ATD in the community and the answers provided by the case managers […] indicate that case management has had ‘some impact’ or ‘huge impact’, ranging from a total of 77% to 94% between questions.”

Marked imbalances among EU member states require targeted intervention to counter the prison emergency with alternative detention initiatives aligned at the European level. Carmen Baffi from FISE wrote on that the "data collected by the International Center for Prison Studies of the Council of Europe report 600,000 prisoners in the EU countries. Cyprus has the highest number of prisoners per 100 available seats (147.5%), while the highest percentage (41.6%) of prisoners awaiting trial is in Luxembourg, the lowest in Poland with only 8.4% on a European average of 23.5%. The total number of detainees in the EU-28 (excluding Belgium) increased gradually each year between 2008 and 2012 and subsequently fell by 3.6% in 2013, by 3.5% in 2014 and 2.9% in 2015. The prison population in 2015 was 6.4% lower than in 2008, according to Eurostat and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (joint survey)”.

Looking at Italy, in their latest report published this year, Antigone Association denounced emergencies in Italian prisons. The total population is more than 58,000 detainees (an increase of 6,000 in the last two years), of which 20,000 are foreigners. “There is no immigration-related crime,” says Antigone’s president Patrizio Gonnella, “because foreign prisoners are down by about 2,000 compared to ten years ago.” In fact, this year, out of 100 foreigners, less than 1 (0.39%) was jailed (in 2003 the figure was 1.16%). The Italian ONLUS reports imbalances in the permits granted to prisoners: in 2017, only 1,411 in Lazio compared to 12,078 in Lombardia. Lombardia is the region that records, in the penitentiary of Como, a rate of overcrowding near 200%, second only to Larino, in Molise, which has 217 prisoners for only 107 beds (the national average stands at 115.2%).

Sensibilising EU citizens to jail issues

To conclude, the perspectives outlined in many reports point to situations of general difficulty in an efficient management of prisons. Referring to the guidelines outlined by UNHCR, the adoption of alternatives to imprisonment, protection of minors and respect for guarantees during detention are central to the agency’s global strategy launched in 2014. The 2014 - 2019 mid-term report Beyond Detention, published in 2016, underlined compliance with internationally recognised standards of detention, as well as a constant monitoring of prisoners’ rights.

The EU is called upon to take a more pragmatic stance on the matter: the protection of fundamental human rights, starting from personal dignity, as enshrined in the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union (2000), is “inviolable. It must be respected and protected” (article 1), The European election campaign should address the difficult prison conditions that afflict thousands of European and non-EU citizens; to make the prison a ‘laboratory’ of civic values, cultivating a spirit of solidarity between inmates and the broader public to restore their future inclusion into society.


[1For more information on FISE’s editorial projects, see Michele Valente’s blog. Finesta sull’Europa is a group of writers composed of communication and political science students from the La Sapienza university in Rome, and the University of Perugia.

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