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Opening Speech by Ms Maud de Boer-Buquicchio
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
on the occasion of the Seminar “Improving prison conditions through effective monitoring and standard-setting”


17-18 March 2011, Antalya

Deputy Undersecretary,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the pleasure in welcoming you on behalf of the
Council of Europe to beautiful Antalya, also known as “the land of all peoples”. The Council of Europe has organised this event together with the Turkish Chairmanship, whom
I wish to warmly thank for the wise choice of venue and for the hospitality. On the European continent, we are all descendants of people who have crossed these lands at some point in our history. This is certainly the common ground we need to address our shared concerns!

We are gathered here to find ways and means for improving prison conditions and the exercise of prisoners’ fundamental rights.

This is certainly not an easy question but as a human rights organisation it is certainly our duty to tackle it.

As Dostoevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

We all know that any place of detention creates a peculiar atmosphere of insecurity, fear and covertness - both in the minds of those detained - and also of those outside such places. In fact, only after the Second World War did prisons start to be more open to the outside world by reason of the widespread atrocities committed in such places during the War itself.

In the fifties and sixties, prisons started undergoing vast changes and reforms to make them more humane. From then on, incarceration rates decreased with the investment in resocialisation and reintegration programmes, as well as with the development of alternatives to custody.

The first international legal instrument, namely The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, was adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held in Geneva in 1955.
It was followed by its more thorough European version, adopted firstly by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 1973 and then it was revised on two occasions
- in 1987 and in 2006 - in order to better reflect the enlargement of the Council of Europe and the developments in the field of human rights protection. The most recent version, namely the widely-known ‘European Prison Rules’ of 2006 reflects the relevant case-law of the European Court of Human Rights - the most important judicial body ensuring respect for fundamental rights and freedoms in Europe - as well as standards set by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the CPT), established in 1989.

Today, our continent faces new threats. Crime has changed its face, new types of offences have emerged, and crime is crossing borders, leading to the increased numbers of foreigners detained far from their homes. On the other hand, the wish to increase security and safety has lead to the introduction of heavier and longer sentences in a number of European countries, resulting in overcrowded prisons and in declining confidence in alternatives to custody.

This trend needs to be reversed as it does not bring us efficient, cost-effective and humane responses to crime.
As prison experts, you know well that punishment has multiple objectives – retribution, prevention, education, resocialisation and reparation. In an overcrowded prison, which lacks sufficient staff and resources, punishment may only result in retribution and temporary prevention from committing new crimes. An overcrowded prison may easily turn into a mere receptacle of socially inadapted or vulnerable persons. Instead of helping these individuals halt their offending behaviour, inadequate prison conditions multiply the negative effects of deprivation of liberty and carry the risk of reintroducing into society a person who is then even less likely to lead
a crime-free life.

We should underline in this respect the special situation of children. This issue, as you know, is a priority for our Organisation, and one to which I am particularly strongly committed. It is my conviction that children have no place in prison. Children simply do not have the maturity to face the harshness of detention. Most children’s conflicts with the law are the result of a dysfunctional family, community or society. In all cases, children need support to adhere to social values and the sense of responsibility, to overcome their difficulties and have real access to education and a violence-free environment, as well as to a fair chance to develop their own potential. In short, we should provide a life project for them and with them and their families. This is simply not possible behind bars, in particular if these bars are just there to punish and isolate people.

The sad reality nowadays is that there are increasing numbers of children in detention, many of them are deprived of their liberty abroad, far from their families and social ties. Together, we must find ways to change this situation. The Guidelines on Child-friendly Justice, adopted by the Committee of Ministers in November last year, are a step in the right direction. These 83 guidelines, a practical guide to the implementation of internationally agreed and binding standards in both in-court and out-of-court proceedings, will enhance children’s access to and fair treatment in justice.

There are however many alternatives to prison for children who have committed criminal offences. The Council of Europe has done extensive work in this area and I invite you to discover our recommendations as well as the many good practices that are now developed in Europe. At the same time, we need to make sure that children that are currently detained in Europe’s prisons benefit from the highest possible level of standards.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our member states are preoccupied by the role and situation of prisons in Europe. That is why at the 30th Council of Europe Conference of Ministers of Justice in Istanbul last November, one of the two main topics was related to prisons. The Ministers adopted a Resolution asking the Council of Europe to evaluate how the existing international standards in the prison field are being implemented by the national authorities, what problems and best practices exist in this respect, and whether there is a need for developing more standards, including binding ones, or for taking other measures to improve prison conditions and prison management.

It is evident that our member states need guidance in this field and the Council of Europe has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in giving such guidance.

The European Court of Human Rights has developed into a major source of European prison law. It gives judgments on a wide range of issues relating to imprisonment such as overcrowding, access to medical care including to hospital treatment or disciplinary punishment or on the necessity to provide prisoners with opportunities to exercise their rights in order to facilitate their reintegration into society.

The effective monitoring carried out by the CPT and the constant political dialogue with the national authorities are very valuable tools to ensure the implementation of the commitments undertaken by our member states in this respect.

The work of the Commissioner for Human Rights in the field of prison and detention conditions, especially concerning young people and irregular migrants, complements the monitoring done by the CPT and also ensures the implementation of European and international standards.

Let us face it: the findings of our monitoring bodies are very often appalling. They not only show the urgency for moving on - their recommendations provide concrete guidance on how to do it.

Whilst taking due note of the bad news, we also have to look at the good news, to those good practices showing that it is possible to improve the situation.

I therefore invite you all to participate actively in the discussions which will take place during these two days. We want to listen to your experience and concerns, so we can seek solutions together to problems you may be facing in executing sanctions and in prison management in general. All those present here today: directors of prison administration, prison practitioners and academics share the same interest and the will to improve prison conditions, staff status and training and treatment of prisoners. So let us work together to make a difference.

I wish you a very successful conference.

Thank you for your attention.