Plight of the forgotten prisoners

January 13, 1995

When Roger Matthews visited a Spanish prison and found that 70 per cent of the inhabitants were HIV positive, and that the seven British prisoners incarcerated there were unsure of their rights, deeply depressed and malnourished, he resolved to carry out research into British prisoners abroad.

His report, Prisoners Abroad: An evaluation of the role of the consular service, has now appeared after two years of work -- and has been done without any external funding. "It really has been a labour of love," says Dr Matthews of the school of sociology and social policy at Middlesex University. "I feel it was research that desperately needed doing -- but no one was prepared to stump up the money."

Based on a postal questionnaire to which 41 of the 98 consular departments in western Europe responded, the report paints a picture of a "forgotten population" of prisoners.

"The assumption is that British prisoners in Europe are OK, and that it is those in the third world that really suffer," says Dr Matthews. "But conditions in prisons in many south European countries in particular are as bad as those in the third world."

He argues that the lines of communciation that exist between Britain and many European countries are as vague and cumbersome as those existing between Britain and countries like Peru.

Of the 2,000 or so Britons imprisoned abroad, approximately half are held in western Europe, including Scandanavia. Increased mobility among European countries is pushing this population upwards.

Dr Matthews argues that a two-tier prison system is developing, with up to half of some prison populations made up of foreigners. In December 1992 there were 342 in Spain, 199 in France and 99 in Germany.

The most common complaints made by prisoners to the consular staff were about the quality of food, the level of medical and dental services, and delays in cases coming to court. Prisoners felt disadvantaged in relation to imprisoned nationals.

About 42 per cent of British prisoners are on remand and approximately half of those imprisoned are inside for drug related offences, the majority of cases involving class B drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines and barbiturates.

The report argues for the establishment of an independent authority or ombudsman to oversee prisoners' complaints and monitor consular services.

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