As a part of assisting with undergraduate research, I spent a semester reading the State Department reports on Human Rights practices. One thing in the reports that constantly stood out to me were the reported conditions in prisons across the world. Almost every country had poor, unhealthy, or unsafe prison conditions. I was personally very struck by this. Prison conditions were a common problem listed in almost every country’s report, yet, I feel it receives such little attention in human rights conversations. Prison conditions should be humane, safe, and protected. There are many reasons that justify why studying prison conditions is important.
Firstly, in regards to prison conditions, there is little recourse to remedy. If there is an ongoing issue in prison, constantly affecting those living there, there is no easy way to get it fixed. There are often numerous hurdles to jump through, funding that isn’t available, or no one who will take the issues seriously. With no easy solution, these issues grow and persist.
Currently, in many countries, it is difficult to monitor prison conditions. The state will either not allow adequate monitoring of prisons or not make the information public knowledge. For instance, it is stated in the State Department Report for Tanzania in 2020, “Authorities require a permit for reporting on police or prison activities…” Conditions in prison are invisible to those who are not living in or consistently spending time in them. Without accurate information, or an easy way to observe prison conditions, nothing will change. The general public will not see a problem with the way people are treated in prison, and no action will be made on behalf of those incarcerated.
In addition to the difficulty in monitoring prisons, the general attitude towards prisoners is that they aren’t deserving of good prison conditions, that prison isn’t supposed to be a ‘vacation,’ that it doesn’t matter if conditions are poor, because prisoners don’t deserve to be treated well. This attitude makes it harder when the general public does have the information about prison conditions. It isn’t likely that those out of prison care enough about those in prison to force change.
Prisoners are also a particularly vulnerable population. Once incarcerated, there is no easy escape. People are trapped, sometimes in life threatening conditions. Going to prison should not be a death sentence, and countries should work to ensure their prisoners are treated in humane ways. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, without exception or derogation. (ICCPR 1966) This should be honored, the rights of prisoners should be protected, and prison conditions must be fixed.
In order to better understand the severity and variety of prison conditions, I compiled a data set documenting prison conditions in every country of the world in the year 2019. The US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices were used to put together the data.
After reading these reports, I came up with 14 different categories to gauge prison or detention center conditions- overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, limited access to medical care, limited access to food/nutrition, limited access to potable water, lack of proper ventilation, lack of heat/AC/electricity, lack of light, lack of proper bedding material, infestation, evidence of corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of hygienic materials, and lastly, if the term “life-threatening” was used to describe the country’s prisons.
Overcrowding/Unsanitary Conditions/Lack of Access to Hygienic Materials
Overcrowding is common in the world’s prisons. While most prisons were overcrowded, some were 125% overcrowded while others were 250% overcrowded. There were 143 countries out of 195 that reported a problem with overcrowding. Something important to note about overcrowding is that it typically exacerbates all the other categories. Overcrowding indicates more people, which leads to worse sanitation, which leads to infestation, etc. It was rare to find a country where there was a problem with overcrowding, but not with sanitary conditions. There were 114 countries that reported unsanitary conditions. 61 countries reported a lack of hygienic materials/infrastructure. In many countries, prisoners would not be provided with basic hygienic materials such as soap. In other countries, prisoners would not have regular or reliable access to a shower. Many times these prisoners would only be able to shower once a week. In Albania, some facilities “lacked basic hygienic amenities, such as showers or sinks.” Along with no access to showers, in some countries the prisons also did not have usable toilets for the prisoners. For instance, in Sierra Leone a facility would provide the prisoners with buckets that would be used instead.
Access to Medical Care
A lack of access to medical care was also a problem in many countries. Many of the world’s prisons do not provide decent health care. Disease ran rampant in many facilities. The most common diseases mentioned in the reports were HIV and Tuberculosis. In some prisons, the officials would put all of the prisoners with communicable diseases in one cell together, rather than seek treatment for them. Again, extreme overcrowding exacerbates the spread of communicable disease. In addition to physical health care, access to mental health care was also included in this category. Many prisoners suffered from mental health issues and had no access to counseling or medication. Suicide rates are high in prison, with many countries reporting at least one death by suicide within the year. 121 countries reported a lack of access to proper medical care.
Access to Food/Access to Potable Water
The next category was lack of access to food or nutrition. This category started out as “lack of access to food.” However, upon reading more and more reports it became apparent that in many countries food is provided to prisoners, it just falls short of the recommended nutrition standard. For instance, in Haiti, prisoners were provided with one to two meals a day consisting of “broth with flour dumplings and potatoes, rice and beans, or porridge.” None of these meals contained sufficient calories. A lack of access to water was also a problem. In many prisons, prisoners have access to water, it is just not safe to drink. It was more common for prisoners to have low access to food rather than potable water, although their totals are similar with 92 countries reporting a lack of access to food and 71 reporting a lack of access to potable water.
Proper Ventilation/Lack of AC/Heat/Poor Infrastructure
Another common category was lack of proper ventilation. Along with that category, under a similar umbrella was a lack of proper AC/heating systems. There were 77 countries that lacked proper ventilation and 52 that lacked a proper AC/heating system. When prisons are poorly ventilated, diseases are spread easily and the air quality inside is poor. Both of these issues contribute to deficient health. Proper ventilation becomes a much bigger problem when the prison also does not have an AC or heating system. In really cold climates prisoners would freeze in their cells and in really warm climates, prisoners would overheat. Poor ventilation or a lack of AC/heat is commonly attributed to poor infrastructure, another category. 30 countries reported problems regarding prison infrastructure. In a lot of cases, poor infrastructure meant a crumbling facility that was in no shape to be housing hundreds of prisoners.
A lack of light was another category. Some of the reports explicitly stated that there was a lack of light within the prisons, but some reports phrased it as little access to sunlight. There were 64 countries that reported a lack of light within their prisons.
Access to Bedding Material/Infestation/Life-Threatening
There were 34 countries that presented a lack of access to bedding material within the reports. A lack of proper bedding material could mean something as little as not having access to extra blankets when it’s cold, to not receiving a mattress and having to sleep on pieces of cardboard on the floor. Infestation was the smallest category. There were 16 countries that reported a problem regarding infestation. Most of the time infestation referred to small insects, but in some cases infestation included insects as well as small rodents such as rats or mice. For example, The Bahamas reported “cells infested with rats, maggots, and insects.” One prisoner in Belize reported “while [he was] detained, he suffered from flaky skin due to poor ventilation and no access to sunlight, he had no blanket or bedding for sleeping, and the cell was infested with scorpions, tarantula spiders, millipedes, and roaches.” Lastly, there was a category titled “life-threatening.” This category was marked if the phrase “life-threatening” was used in the report. There were 77 countries that reported life-threatening conditions.
Overall, no country was marked for all 14 categories. Brazil came the closest with 13, it was the only country to do so. There were 17 countries that presented at least 10 of the 14 categories. There were 30 countries that had no evidence of human rights abuses within the state’s prisons. The unfortunate thing about prison conditions is that when one category is a problem, it often leads to problems in other categories. For instance if overcrowding is a problem in a facility it often leads to unsanitary conditions which might lead to a problem with infestation. The biggest problem across the board is overcrowding. So many people face harmful human rights abuses within prisons and it is not something they are able to escape. There are 77 countries where being sent to prison is life-threatening. No one should have to face the abuse and conditions these prisoners deal with on a daily basis.
Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor. 2019. 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights.
Emma Appleby is a Political Science major and a Human Rights Studies Minor at UNC Asheville and serves on the editorial board.