No Toilets or Air For "Forgotten Prisoners"

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prison conditions worldwide are worse than the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture could have imagined. So he said, while presenting his latest findings from detention centers in different regions. Jails without air, toilets and food are not rare.

The UN produces a steady stream of reports every year that are judiciously discussed and web-linked. Occasionally, some of these studies before being archived, invite a raised eyebrow.

In Equatorial Guinea, Rapporteur Manfred Nowak reveals that the government does not provide food and water to the prisoners who must wait for their families to bring water in plastic bottles and food in plastic bags.

Since there are no toilets, prisoners use the same bottles to urinate and the plastic bags to defecate. In most police stations, including the police headquarters in the capital Malabo, tons of filled and stinking plastic bottles and bags had been thrown through the bars to the corridors and open yards.

The government of Equatorial Guinea has rejected the report. “So many countries are not living up to their obligations to respect the basic dignity of human beings in detention,” says Nowak.

In prisons little bit outside of Montevideo in Uruguay, detainees used the water in the toilets for drinking.  The sewage system does not work so inmates use plastic bags for defecation, which they later throw outside.

In Uruguay, hundreds of convicts and pretrial detainees spend years in tiny metal boxes called “las latas” (tin cans) under conditions described by the Rapporteur as “inhuman.”

During the summer, heat in these metal boxes reaches 60° C and the lack of ventilation means that detainees had to sit in shifts in front of tiny openings to breathe. They also had to cut themselves in order to get medical assistance.

In Nigeria, a small hole in the corner of the cell served as a toilet for 100 detainees whose cell had a makeshift roof making the temperature and humidity unbearable.

In many cases, prisoners have to wait for hours before a guard lets them out to use a toilet, and most detainees are watched by others as they use a hole in the corner of an overcrowded cell.

The Uruguayan leadership gave orders to close down that particular prison three days after Nowak’s visit in March.  In Nigeria, the government decided to release 20,000 prisoners since their pre trial detention lasted longer than their maximum term. Many people above the age of 60 have already been released.

Worse than the beatings and torture to extract confessions.... is living in prisons where the government does not provide food or health services. Instead, it the responsibility of individual families to organize meals and toilet articles.

“If you’re a foreigner or you don’t have a might starve or you may try to get food from other detainees in exchange for slavery like services, sexual services and other services….”says Nowak. “The poor are at the bottom of the prison hierarchy.”

The study declares the “re-education through labour” programme in the infamous Chinese Falun Gong camps equivalent to brainwashing. Then, in Togo, three detainees with serious mental disabilities were simply left unattended in a dark cell.

It is a conservative estimate that one million children are behind bars. Under international law, children can be jailed only under exceptional circumstances for a short period of time.

The report finds that children as young as eight or nine are packed away for minor crimes, end up for   prolonged periods in pre-trial detention, and are treated much worse than the grown-ups. “Children more often than adults are subject to beatings and institutionalized corporal punishment......sexual violence,” says Nowak.

This is the Rapporteur’s fifth report since 2004, and now the UN agent is pushing for an international convention that will protect the rights of detainees as a vulnerable group. “Most people have no idea how life behind bars looks in reality,” he says.

In many instances, the UN’s requests to come and inspect the prisons have been denied for several years. “Unfortunately in the Arab world on the one hand torture is wildly practiced and secondly most countries did not request favorably to my request,” he says.

Countries suspected of human rights violations, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria have not responded to requests.

In Jordan, Nowak found that while there was no systematic torture, practices like beating on the soles and then walking on salt were carried out in a prison in Amman. The notorious Al-Jafr prison, located in the desert 350 km south of Amman in Jordan, was closed after the Special Rapporteur visited.

The UN estimates that the 10 million persons deprived of liberty worldwide are living in unacceptable conditions. The Rapporteur stresses that abuses also occur in industrialized nations particularly with aliens awaiting deportation or minors who have broken immigration laws.

Several countries have avoided a check-up including Afghanistan, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and United States. Cuba has invited Nowak for a visit in 2010.