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The Global Prison (Book Review)

The Human Rights Watch Global report On Prisons

Edited by Aryeh Neier 303 pp. 1993. New York: Human Rights Watch. $20.00 (pb).

Review by David Gilbert

The Brazilian Military Police's wanton murder of 111 prisoners involved in a disturbance is just one of the grim realities presented in The Human Rights Watch Global Report on Prisons (Global Report) in its study covering twenty countries around the world. We learn that brutal torture of suspects--men, women and children -- is routine in Turkey. We are told how a Chinese prisoner may be handcuffed behind his back for several weeks--he can only eat by lying on his stomach and lapping food like a dog--for the offense of picking up a guard's discarded cigarette butt. We're apprised of Palestinian "security" prisoners from the occupied territories being illegally held in Israel--where their families and lawyers may be restricted from visiting--packed into desert tent camps with 100o summer heat. We witness the stultifying overcrowding of a detention cell in Jamaica, where inmates sleep on a wet, filthy floor amid the stench of nearby pools of feces.

This volume is based on a six-year study that has already produced eighteen different books on specific countries. Scanning across nations, several general themes also emerge:

Corruption is common, resulting in the pilfering of supplies needed by prisoners and the extortion of their families.

Women are usually afforded a lot less in the way of programs and activities and (because there are fewer women's prisons) are often held at much greater distance from their families.

Many countries now have a separate category, with far more onerous conditions, for "security" (read political) prisoners. For example, Peru has arrested over 2,500 persons in one year under its 1992 "anti-terrorism" law, which strips such prisoners of virtually every basic right.

Prison systems routinely ignore or violate the laws that govern them. "By treating criminals and those accused of crimes in an inhuman and degrading manner, and by imposing penalties not authorized by law, a society betrays the very principles that its criminal laws purport to uphold."

Perhaps the most heartrending situation is Zaire, where the general breakdown of society and rampant official corruption mean that almost no food or medical supplies are reaching the inmates. In 1991, malnutrition and lack of medical care resulted in 2,229 officially recorded deaths -- a staggering eight percent of the prison population, most of whom are pretrial detainees. (Before feeling smug and superior, we need to recall the U.S.'s active historical role in Zaire, then called the Congo, in the sabotaging of the independence movement and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. The result was the rise to power in 1965 of the U.S.-backed Mobutu Sese Seko, who now has an estimated personal fortune of five billion dollars while half of Zairean children died before age five.)

Global Report doesn't take on such issues as the U.S. role in poverty and repression in the third world, nor does it measure each country's conditions relative to its wealth. But the U.S., while not typified by the worst global examples of abuse, has its share of problems and actually leads in a couple of negative categories: 1) the highest prisoner to population ratios of any large country-- 445/100,000--for an average of 1.3 million in jail or prison on any given day; 2) the biggest death row, with 2,500 persons nationwide awaiting execution.

The Human Rights Watch inexcusably fails to examine the pervasive role of racism in the application of disciplinary sanctions, which can be a central determinant of one's conditions in U.S. prisons. The study is on-point, however, in focusing on the burgeoning of super-security prisons modeled after the federal facility at Marion, Illinois. Thirty-six states have already followed suit with their own "maxi-maxis." "In Florida State Prison at Starke, some inmates are held in windowless cells from which they are allowed out only three times a week, for ten minutes, to shower. The rest of the time they are alone in the cell. This situation may last for a few years." There are numerous reports of beating in such facilities, usually in retaliation for arguing with guards.

The book makes 117 specific recommendations under seventeen general topic headings. Almost all are intelligent and humane, but many are so tame and toothless as to be nugatory. For example, they don't propose anything close to the level of independent, outside scrutiny need to put a dent in prison brutality, and they don't even address the deadly AIDS and TB epidemics ravaging many prison systems.

Global Report does not provide any adequate solutions. It is, nevertheless, an invaluable and eye-opening study grounded in the right basic premise: prisoners "...are fellow human beings and are entitled to be treated as such." When society does any less, it sullies its own humanity. This book can be ordered (#1010) from Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Ave., N.Y., NY 10017-6104.

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