A European Parliament hearing has heard that a binding European prisons charter may help tackle the “many problems” facing Europe’s penal systems.
The conference, on Thursday in Brussels, was told such a move could offer a “practical and tangible” answer to issues such as prison overcrowding.
Marie Cretenot, of the International Prisons Observatory, who was among the several keynote speakers, outlined problems in French jails which, she said, currently have an occupancy rate of 117 per cent, rising to as much as 200 per cent in some jails.
The result, she told the hearing, was that inmates were being held in “intolerable conditions” with many locked up 22 hours a day and with no access to exercise.
The overcrowding issue has remained a problem since the early 1990s even though some 200,000 new prison places have been provided in France since then.
Figures show there are an average of 105 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in France.
“Despite the provision of new prison places and falling crime rates, particularly for burglary and theft, occupancy rates in prisons remain unacceptably high,” said Cretenot.
One reason for this, she told the meeting, was current French penal policy which put the emphasis on longer sentences.
“Another reason is the trend towards faster trials which, invariably, result in higher conviction rates and custodial sentences.”
Another speaker, Ilina Taneva, secretary of the Council for Penological Cooperation at the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, said that 33 percent of the organisation’s 40 member countries had a problem with prison overcrowding.
Overcrowding was still worse in central and eastern European countries, she noted.
One area of particular concern, she said, was the “rising number” of non-EU citizens currently being held in custody in Europe’s prisons.
The event also heard that special attention should be paid to overcrowding but also other issues, such as pre-trial detention and the “phenomenon” of radicalisation.
It has emerged that some of the bombers behind recent terrorist atrocities in Paris, Brussels and other EU capitals had “radicalised to violent extremism” while serving custodial sentences in Belgium and other EU member states.
“The situation generally is very alarming,” said Cretenot.
The event, entitled, “Prisons’ systems and conditions in the EU”, heard that the idea of a legally binding, EU-wide prison charter had first been mooted as far back as 2004 by the Council of Europe but could be worth reviving, said Vivian Geiran, chairman of the Council for Penological Cooperation.
Geiran said, “It is definitely worth considering and could offer practical and tangible results. Such a charter could have benefits not just for prisoners themselves but also for prison staff and the wider community.”
He highlighted the “huge” cost of imprisonment which, he said, amounted to some €21bn per year in Europe.
He said, “It costs on average €100 per prisoner per day to house inmates in Europe although there are huge differences across member states.
“We hear a lot about building bigger and better prisons but that is not always the solution. Quite often the challenge lies elsewhere and, instead of this approach, we should be looking at the use of alternative measures to detentions.”
He said one problem was the “low priority” prison conditions traditionally has on the political agenda.
“It has a low level priority for EU lawmakers and the result is that we have dilapidated prison conditions.”
The hearing was told that while prison conditions are mainly a member state competence, there is a role for the EU because it is “essential” to ensure that satisfactory detention conditions exist in all member states.
Other problems highlighted were the use of pre-trial detention and the situation of vulnerable prisoners such as children and persons with mental disabilities.
“The training of prison staff should also be taken into consideration,” said Geiran.
The hearing heard that parliament expressed concerns about prison conditions in some member states in a resolution adopted last December.
The resolution said conditions were often characterised by overcrowding and ill treatment and pointed out that the “fundamental rights” of prisoners “should be guaranteed.”