Of prisoners, basic human rights

HARARE - One out of every 700 people in the world is in prison and the world’s prison population stands at over 9 million. The continent of Africa is home to 53 countries, roughly 3 000 prisons, and approximately 1 million prisoners.

Prisons in many parts of the world are in crisis. The prison crisis is not limited to poor countries or those in the global south; it extends to many western countries as well. The problems are primarily attributable to the high rate of confinement which results in a lack of resources and overcrowded, unsafe squalid conditions.

These difficulties are such that even in European countries where prisons are generally considered good, “prisoners are simmering on the point of riot or rebellion”. Their discontent is not only with their fellow inmates, but also with prison staff, who are often demoralised, disaffected and restless. Thus problems in prisons are not a uniquely African problem.

A society’s human record is mirrored in the state of human rights protection in its prisons. Apart from the death penalty, imprisonment is one of the harshest punishment a society can impose on those who transgress on its rules.

What goes on in the prisons of any given country reflects its penal system, its legislation, its policies, its developmental maturity, its history, culture and ideologies.

In this regard Nelson Mandela aptly wrote “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. In this context prisoners are usually grouped with other vulnerable groups in a society, such as women, children and the disabled whose rights are most likely to be abused and are therefore in need of protection.

Prisoners are still universally accepted and located at the central feature of criminal justice. They are the most effective institutions to deal with those who have transgressed the law. There are undoubtedly enormous benefits to a society as a whole when there is adherence to human rights standards in prisons.

Because human rights abuses are common in such institutions, there is understandably a desire to keep these malpractices out of the public domain. In many countries civil society is weak and media scrutiny remains limited, therefore prison issues fly under the radar until some major event, such as a prison riot, thrust them into the open. Prisons in China are regarded as the most secretive.

Running prisons is expensive, the cost per prisoner is exorbitant and these expenses escalate annually, in both the developed and developing world, prison management is a major drain on resources. Prisons in parts of the developed world are also afflicted by insufficient funds. Overcrowding is not only symptomatic of poor countries; it also affects affluent countries such as the US.

The right to food is not a right to a minimum ration of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients, or a right to be fed. It is about being guaranteed the right to feed oneself, which requires not only that food is available — that the ratio of production to the population is sufficient — but also that it is accessible.

Critically, African countries may not have the resources to make major and costly changes in their prisons but are attempting to improve the treatment of prisoners and the conditions under which they are held.

A prisoner is anyone who has committed a crime for which he/she has been sentenced by a judge or magistrate in a court of law. Such persons are deprived of personal liberty and are under the care of the State for the duration of their sentence.

Upon conviction and sentencing prisoners lose some rights and privileges but retain basic rights such as the right to food, shelter, adequate sanitation, security and fair legal representation.

These basic rights are assured by the Constitution. Under the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, all prisoners are entitled to human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the responsibility of the Zimbabwe Prisons Services (ZPS) to afford prisoners in their care these rights.

The mission statement of ZPS is in line with the provisions of the Constitution of Zimbabwe and aims, “to protect society from the criminal elements through the incarceration and rehabilitation of offenders for their successful reintegration into society while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and humane control”.

In this case prisons are meant to be places of rehabilitation and personal reformation not places where extra punishment is added onto their existing sentence. The Constitution states that prisoners have certain fundamental rights which are necessary to preserve their dignity. The Constitution further states that all persons (including prisoners are to be protected from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment).

The Prison Act (Chapter 7:11) is the chief law governing operations in Zimbabwe’s correctional institutions. The Act sets out the rights of prisoners in line with international standards and instruments which in turn set out the fundamental and universally applicable rule that persons deprived of their liberty must be treated with humanity, dignity and respect while in detention.

These human rights are incorporated in Article 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and in the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (CAT).

The United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment Number 21 makes it clear that prisoners enjoy all the rights in the ICCPR, subject to restrictions that are unavoidable in a closed environment”.

Prisoners have the right to be provided with food that is adequate to maintain their health and well-being. Be provided with clothing that is suitable for the climate and for any work which the prisoners is required to do and adequate to maintain the health of the prisoner. Have access to reasonable medical care and treatment necessary for the preservation of health

Human dignity is a universal concept referred to both in national Constitutions and international Conventions.

Every person‘s inherent worth must be valued and respected and by doing so a person‘s dignity is respected. In recognition of the inherent worth of a person, the Universal Declaration of Human rights provides that human beings equally have inherent dignity because of their ability to reason and to have a conscience as such the spirit of brotherhood must prevail.

Even those deprived of liberty have inherent worth and deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity in agreement with international law the Constitution provides that everyone has a right to human dignity and such human dignity.

Prisons are a necessary component of a society that is governed by rules and regulations. Prisoners are incarcerated as punishment for crimes committed and to protect society against criminal elements.

While serving their sentences, prisoners are still human beings whose basic human rights should be respected while they are in correctional institutions.

*Mandida Gusha is a post graduate student at NUST.

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