Conditions of detention and treatment of prisoners:

Despite the comprehensive system of international standards aimed at the protection of those in detention, serious human rights abuses still occur. Foreign prisoners are in a uniquely vulnerable position and it can be extremely difficult to get access to the outside world in order to call attention to the conditions they can suffer.

Conditions of detention
Torture and ill-treatment
Access to medical treatment
Access to work and education
Foreign prisoners facing the death penalty

Conditions of detention
Prison conditions vary tremendously between nations and generally reflect the social and economic situation of each country. In many countries, foreign national prisoners suffer violations of their human rights through poor treatment and conditions. In developing countries, local prisoners rely on their family to supplement their diet by bringing in food for them to the prisons. Foreign prisoners are at a disadvantage as they are dependent on money sent to them by their families back home. Many of foreign prisoners' families however cannot afford to send money.

In some prisons, the prisoners spend twenty-three hours a day locked up, often sharing a cell with many others, sometimes sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Foreign nationals face these conditions with the additional difficulties of being isolated from most other inmates through cultural differences and language barriers. They are further isolated through distance from family and friends and by the mental anguish of not knowing what is happening and will happen to them.

Lack of sanitation, poor hygiene and severe overcrowding in some countries also mean that foreign prisoners have little hope of staying healthy. In some jails, prisoners have to pay for their cell, mattress and bedding and sometimes end up having to sleep on the floor of the cell due to overcrowding.

"Lack of space or activity makes it very unhealthy and awkward to keep fit or healthy. Just six showers between one hundred and ten people is bad, also, we have to use the water to wash clothes as well. Any infection or disease can spread quickly within the whole place with 8-10 people in each cell, sometimes two on the floor."

In some prisons, prisoners are locked up for 21 to 23 hours a day and can be locked up for 24 hours at weekends. Furthermore, sanitary facilities are often grossly inadequate with little or no privacy.

"The average amount of inmates in the cell was one hundred and ten... The cell was about 12 square yards... At night everyone had to lie on their sides, as there was not enough room to lie on your back. To use the toilet at night you had to wake the people up sleeping in the toilet. The two toilets were just holes in the floor and whatever function you did in the toilet, the whole cell could see you."

Even basic necessities such as toilet paper, soap and toothbrushes are not always provided for free and are expensive to purchase. Sometimes, corruption in the prison system makes this particularly difficult:

"We buy everything with the money our families send us, nothing is for free, not even drinking water, and when the police do our shopping 9/10 they rob from the money."

Torture and ill-treatment
For some prisoners, their status as foreign prisoners protects them from the treatment handed out to local prisoners. Nonetheless, the effect of being held in situations where violence and ill-treatment is endemic can be deeply traumatising for prisoners.

"To see someone's legs tied, suspended upside down while their feet are beaten has a disturbing effect. Even the sound I shall never forget, not just the screaming but also the swash of the hose coming down on their body"

In some places, foreign prisoners may themselves be subject to torture and ill-treatment, particularly when they are first arrested and are being questioned by the police. Their lack of understanding of the local language makes them especially vulnerable in these situations.

Access to medical treatment
Every year, hundreds of European citizens are arrested abroad. For some of these prisoners, problems caused by inadequate diet and unhygienic living conditions result in ill health and, occasionally, death.

In the Far East, Middle East, Latin America and in Eastern & South Eastern Europe, fevers and other infections, such as malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea are common amongst prisoners.

Skin-related problems, such as rashes, insect bites and boils are alsocommon amongst prisoners in these regions. Many prisoners in these countries also suffer weight-loss.

Foreign prisoners in Western & Central Europe and in Scandinavia tend to report problems which are associated with depression and stress, such as insomnia and panic attacks.

Overall, there is a high incidence of dental problems amongst foreign prisoners. This can be seen to be linked partly to prisoners' poor diet, and partly to a general lack of access to dental hygiene and dental care.

A survey carried out in 1999 amongst British prisoners found that nearly 50% of those incarcerated in non-English-speaking countries stated that they could not communicate with the prison doctor and a further 10% stated that communication was limited. Over two-thirds revealed that there was no interpreter or translator available to assist them when they saw a doctor.

In some countries, prisoners have to pay to see a doctor or to receive medication:

"I have epilepsy, dental problems, spastic colon due to a poor diet...and pancreas problems (I think)... I'm not sure due to communication. I do have to take pills which I don't have because I have to buy them. I would like to see somebody who could explain what's wrong... I'm completely in the dark with pain in my stomach and teeth falling out."

Moreover, access to medical treatment is often reliant on Consular intervention.

Access to work and education
Many foreign prisoners find that work is generally unavailable or inaccessible due to language barriers. Other facilities, for example prison libraries or training are sometimes not available to foreign prisoners. The absence of recreational facilities, coupled with the lack of access to work exacerbates the boredom and isolation felt by many foreign prisoners:

"Every day is a mental struggle. We have nothing to stimulate our minds. We are slowly going crazy. There is no physical stimulation, have no exercise yard, no weightlifting, no football or anything. We can walk up and down the yard 25 meters long so now I have no muscular definition in my body at all."

Different countries have different rules concerning communication with the outside world. Where these rules are strict, they seriously affect foreign prisoners as these prisoners rely on receiving letters to keep in touch with their families, friends and the outside world. The anxiety of not hearing regularly from family and friends can be an additional pressure which can leave a foreign prisoner feeling desperately isolated and fearful.

Mail is often tightly monitored with letters being translated before being passed on. This means letters take much longer to reach their destination which is particularly distressing for a foreign offender who has far less access to visits, newspapers and phone calls. In addition, many countries also have tight regulations concerning the receipt of parcels. In fact, France and Spain will not allow any parcels to be sent direct to a prisoner so it can be extremely difficult to find ways of ensuring a prisoner receives much needed clothes, books etc. Families may not be aware of the regulations and may waste money sending parcels which will only be refused at the prison.

For foreign nationals, isolated from most other prisoners through cultural differences and language barriers, the added restriction of not being able to speak by phone with their family and friends can cause extreme suffering. Families are, for reasons of distance and cost, rarely able to visit their relatives. Visitors have been arbitrarily denied access to prisons and prohibiting visits is sometimes used as a form of punishment.

"I enclose a copy of the latest ‘refusal of visitation' from the Judge on the grounds that the investigations continue and that I might act in fraudulent concept to impede them. My brother-in-law has also received the same letter... It is more than obvious that the Judge is trying to force a confession from [my husband] by denying him basic human rights."

Foreign prisoners facing the death penalty
At least eleven European nationals are currently on death row in the USA. A regularly updated list of death-sentenced foreign nationals and other background information is posted by the Death Penalty Information Centre.

Others are detained in prisons around the world (currently there are also European citizens sentenced to death in Dominica and Pakistan).

Many of these cases involve prisoners who have not been given access to their consular representative and who, consequently, have suffered violations of their rights. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the USA a quarter century ago, more than 120 foreign nationals representing nearly 40 nationalities have been sentenced to death. In virtually every case, the arresting authorities failed to inform the nationals of their consular rights, often with devastating effect on the quality of their legal representation and the outcome of their trials. Of the 15 foreign citizens executed in the USA between March 1992 and May 2001, not one was informed of their guaranteed right to consular notification and access.

Last year, the cases of two German nationals on death row in the USA was taken to the International Court of Justice where it was ruled that the United States 'breached its obligations to Germany and to the LaGrand brothers under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,''(7) by failing to promptly inform Karl and Walter LaGrand following their arrest of their right to communicate with their consulate' and that the principles in the ruling applied to all nationalities. The full text of the ICJ ruling is available at: