The brutal test of civilisation

Inhuman States
January 3, 1997

Not long ago, three men suffocated to death in St Catherine's Prison in Jamaica. For many hours, 19 of them had been held in a cell eight feet by seven feet. Their cries of desperation were ignored by guards stationed nearby. Such stories are neither unusual nor unbelievable from the vastly overcrowded and underfunded prisons of South America, Africa and parts of Asia, where reports circulate of Aids afflicting over half of the prison population, and inmates so wretched that they volunteer to commit suicide to draw attention to what is happening. That torture and brutality is alive and well in Europe's jails is, however, harder to stomach. Yet this is the inescapable conclusion of Antonio Cassese's sober, brief, altogether convincing Inhuman States: Imprisonment, Detention and Torture in Europe Today.

In 1989, Cassese was asked by the 23 member states of the Council of Europe to preside over a group of international inspectors to Europe's prisons, police stations, psychiatric hospitals and anywhere else that they could find in which prisoners were being held. Their mandate was to establish whether "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment'', particularly torture, as proscribed by international laws and conventions to which the countries are all signatories, was being inflicted on detainees, and to identify situations on the verge of becoming unendurable. It was a brave move, for it was the first time that the member states had proved willing to waive national sovreignty over what Cassese calls "the most delicate and hidden recesses of the state machinery''.

The powers given to the inspectors - by design a mixed group of doctors, forensic experts, psychiatrists and criminologists - were of a precise kind. Unlike the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who have been visiting political detainees since the uprising of Bela Kun in Hungary in 1919, the Strasbourg inspectors were granted full access to any and all places of detention. Like the ICRC delegates, on the other hand, the quid pro quo for access was confidentiality: the inspectors might go where they pleased, discover what they could, but at the end of the day the report they wrote was for the eyes of the government concerned and Strasbourg alone. Only in cases of extreme transgressions - as with the ICRC - could the inspectors resort to public condemnation.

After long debates with other experienced prison visitors, two kinds of inspections were agreed on. There would be ordinary, planned visits, announced beforehand, during which inspectors would be free to talk to anyone they wanted to, in total privacy; and there would be ad hoc visits, when it seemed highly probable that some kind of major concealment was taking place. In Cassese's four years as president, only three ad hoc visits took place: two to Turkey and one to Northern Ireland.

From his first hours in office, Cassese had understandable worries about what precisely constituted "torture'' and "inhuman treatment'', and how inspectors would recognise it when they saw it. Interestingly these worries were dispelled at once. Out of their own moral convictions, the inspectors found that they had no difficulty at all agreeing on what was or was not humane.

Armed with these compasses to human endurance, Cassese and his inspectors set off on their visits. From his descriptions, it is clear that the team worked extremely hard, frequently in disagreeable circumstances. While prison governors, accustomed to being visited, greeted the Strasbourg inspectors with civility, police were seldom as welcoming, hardly surprising perhaps when pretrial detention in police hands is known throughout the world to be the moment at which torture is most likely to occur. Cassese's stories of confrontations with surly officers outside concealed cells and locked cupboards make chilly reading. To their skills as lawyers and doctors, the inspectors had often to add those of dogged detectives. Cassese had always known that he would find the "suffering and degradation'' he witnessed day after day hard to bear. To cope with not being able to tell anyone of his experiences, he wrote them down. When, in 1993, he felt that he could no longer sit through long interviews in "the carefully enclosed spaces set aside for pain'', he resigned, and used his notes as the basis for his book.

Inhuman States is a short book. Yet it is full of fascinating information and insights. Early disappointment that individual jails and officers are not named, nor countries always identified, quickly vanishes. For what Cassese has done is to write not simply a wholly convincing report on the existence of ill-treatment throughout Europe's jails, but an essay on the nature of modern imprisonment, on how society deals with people it regards as misfits and on the lengths to which people will go to ignore violence and aggression. Inhuman States, which has been admirably translated by Jennifer Greensleaves, is, if anything, too short. Some of Cassese's views - he is president of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia - are presented in a tantalisingly abbreviated form.

When Strasbourg appointed its team of inspectors, the assumption was that improvements would follow in the wake of their visits. These are extremely difficult to prove. Cassese himself can only point to the demolition of a number of inhumanly cramped cells, to the "ping-pong'' dialogue triggered off between governments and Strasbourg, and to the apparent interest aroused in a number of prison governors, police and magistrates. What he concludes is that prevention is as essential in prison monitoring as it is in all other human rights activities. Like Max van der Stoel, appointed not long ago by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to identify and intervene in potential crises among ethnic minorities, Cassese sees Strasbourg's decision to create a team of international prison visitors as a very positive move in the direction of establishing a set of standards for Europe. This will, he hopes, protect prisoners before they have become so degraded that they cease to be human beings in the eyes of their jailors. Why police officers and guards turn into abusers and torturers, he argues, is because the concept of human dignity is frail. To make the principles of humanity prevail, the struggle has to be kept up, day after day.

For all his optimism, it is not possible to reach the end of Cassese's fine book without an uneasy and dispirited feeling. Whether defined as long periods in solitary confinement, as repeated humiliations or beatings on the soles of the feet, "inhuman treatment'' is endemic in prisons all the way from southern Spain to northern Scandinavia. And the fact that crude earlier forms of torture such as thumbscrews and racks have been replaced by plastic bags, freezing water and electrodes, merely makes it harder to detect. Cassese's cool accounts of his conversations with prisoners and jailors confirm far more convincingly than many more sensational reports that there is a rotten heart to Europe's prison system.

When genocide seemed confined to distant African and Asian countries, it remained remote from the active concern of most Europeans. It was when it came to Bosnia, when atrocities were seen to be perpetrated a few hours drive from the beaches of Dubrovnik, that an uncomfortable sensation of complicity began to spread beyond the offices of human rights organisations. Inhuman States brings the cruel nature of "backward and barbarian'' Europe decidedly closer. As Winston Churchill memorably rose to tell the House of Commons in 1910, one of the tests of civilisation of any country is the way it treats those it sends to prison. At a time of increasing violence, fanned by drug-trafficking, terrorism and organised crime, when the savagery of criminals is matched by the public calls for ferocious punishment, Cassese argues that if there is to be a properly united Europe, we really have no choice but to "smarten up the dirty, worn out part of the social fabric, the part we have left shrouded in darkness''.

Caroline Moorehead is writer who specialises in human rights issues.

Inhuman States: Imprisonment, Detention and Torture in Europe Today

Author - Antonio Cassese
ISBN - 0 7456 1721 2
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 141

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