03.22.13

Citing Vile Conditions In Many Foreign Prisons, Leahy And Inhofe Offer Bill To Spotlight Problems And Spur Reforms

WASHINGTON – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are renewing their drive to spur improvements in many foreign prisons where conditions are reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

On Friday they reintroduced their Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act, which would systematically spotlight and document inhumane prison conditions, and then authorize a series of steps, including incentive grants, as catalysts for reform.  

Both senators have visited overcrowded and ill-equipped prisons.  Inhofe has often visited prisons and detention facilities in Africa and has led in calling attention to conditions there, particularly the high incidence of HIV/AIDS.  Leahy, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, last month toured Haiti’s National Penitentiary, which before the 2010 earthquake held more than 4100 prisoners in a space built for fewer than 900.  With sanitation practically absent, disease was rampant, and many prisoners had to sleep standing up.  Since then the U.S. Agency for International Development has supported Health Through Walls (a small Florida-based nonprofit) and the Rural Justice Center (a small Vermont-based nonprofit), which have worked with the Government of Haiti to bring some improvements to the facility. 

Their bill came close to Senate approval in the last Congress, but the clock ran out before final passage.  Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) again intends to introduce a counterpart House measure.  The Leahy-Inhofe bill is supported by a large coalition of human rights and faith-based organizations. 

The Leahy-Inhofe  bill would: 1) focus attention on a problem they say has been long ignored; 2) set forth primary indicators for the elimination of inhumane conditions in foreign prisons and other detention facilities; (3) require the Secretary of State to report annually on prison conditions in at least 30 countries receiving U.S. assistance or under U.S. sanctions; (4) encourage the State Department and USAID to offer assistance where appropriate; (4) require the State Department to enter into consultations with governments not making significant remedial efforts; (5) train Foreign Service Officers in advancing the purposes of the law, and designate an official with responsibility for implementing it; and (6) authorize funds to implement these steps.

Leahy, in a statement upon introducing the bill, said:  “In countries around the world, the United States is helping to reform justice systems and strengthen the rule of law.  No justice system can claim to deliver justice if prisoners and other detainees are treated like animals, or worse.  By helping to change attitudes, and showing how with relatively little money prison conditions can be significantly improved, we can help advance the cause of justice more broadly.”

Inhofe, in a statement, said:  "I have made 128 African country visits over the past 16 years, and I believe that given the chance, the majority of Africa’s leaders will welcome the opportunity to interact with our embassy and consulate personnel and adopt the best practices for achieving the elimination of unhealthy and unsafe conditions in their prisons and other detention facilities.  It is also my hope that our neighbors to the south will adopt safe and sanitary prisons conditions and correct the dysfunctions in their justice systems so that another U.S. citizen does not have to spend 90 days in prison for a paperwork error."

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Contact:               David Carle (w/Leahy), 202-224-3693
                            Donelle Harden (w/Inhofe), 202-224-4721

[Following are the full statements of Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator James Inhofe on introduction of their Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act:]


STATEMENT OF SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY
The Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013
Senate Floor

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, I am very pleased to join today with the senior Senator from Oklahoma, Senator Inhofe, in reintroducing legislation that has already attracted broad support from across the social and political spectrum.  An almost identical version was reported by the Foreign Relations Committee two years ago, and then last December it was cleared by both sides for passage by unanimous consent but the Senate adjourned shortly before it could be adopted.

This bill, titled the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013, seeks to address a much neglected, global human rights and humanitarian problem – the inhumane treatment of people in foreign prisons and other detention facilities. 

On any given day, millions of people are languishing in foreign prisons, many in pretrial detention having never been brought before a judge or formally charged or proven guilty of anything, deprived of their freedom in abysmal conditions, often for years longer than they could have been sentenced to prison if convicted.  

Others are imprisoned after being convicted of offenses, often after woefully unfair trials, including for nothing more than peacefully expressing political or religious beliefs or defending human rights.  Regardless of their status they have one thing in common.  They are deprived of the most basic rights and necessities – safe water, adequate food, essential medical care, personal safety, and dignity. 

Anyone who has been inside one of these facilities, or seen photographs or press reports of what they are like, understands that this is about the mistreatment of human beings in ways that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

A few examples illustrate the point.  In Haiti’s National Penitentiary before the 2010 earthquake, more than 4,100 prisoners were confined in a space built for less than 900.  Many did not have room to lie down and had to sleep standing up.  Sanitation was practically non-existent.  Deadly contagious diseases were rampant.  The overwhelming majority of inmates had never been formally charged, never seen a lawyer or a judge.  The earthquake damaged the prison and the prison guards fled, leaving the inmates to fend for themselves without food or water.  They managed to get out, but the squalid facility filled up again. 

Senator Whitehouse and I visited that facility just last month.  It currently holds more than 3,700 prisoners of which more than 3,400 are awaiting trial.  Thanks to the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a small Florida-based organization, Health Through Walls, a new infirmary and X-ray machine have dramatically reduced the incidence of HIV and tuberculosis.  A small Vermont-based organization, the Rural Justice Center, is using USAID funds to chip away at the pretrial detention problem.  These are examples of how modest funding can save lives and improve access to justice for prisoners in facilities plagued by abysmal conditions.

I recall a newspaper article about how in Benin, in West Africa, the skin of prisoners was ragged from the extraction of fly larvae, an affliction that is symptomatic of the deplorable conditions.  Many inmates suffer from tuberculosis, scabies, parasites, lung infections or other illnesses.  The prison in Abomey, located in southern Benin, was built in 1904 to house a maximum of 150 prisoners.  A year or two ago, more than 1,000 were reportedly confined there.

Last February, a fire at the Comayagua Prison in Honduras killed 360 inmates.  In one overcrowded cell block only four of 105 prisoners survived.  More than half of those who died were waiting to be charged or tried.

It is common in prisons from Latin America to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia for inmates to be severely malnourished and to go for months without being able to wash.   Many prisoners depend for survival on food brought to them by relatives.   In many countries individuals awaiting trial, young and old, are housed together with convicted, violent criminals.

Prisoners and other detainees in many countries are also routinely victimized by poorly trained, abusive guards who are virtually unsupervised and unaccountable to any higher authority.  Sexual abuse of men, women and children is common.   

Prisoners in many countries die in prison from lack of proper medical care.  Inmates suffer from AIDS and other illnesses in facilities with no medical records, where doctors do not enter.  Prisoners intentionally cut or otherwise harm themselves in the hope of receiving medical attention for life-threatening illnesses.  If and when they are released they infect the local population.

A New York Times article described how prisoners in one African country were punished by being stripped naked and held in solitary confinement in small, windowless cells, sometimes for days on end, in ankle-to-calf-high water contaminated with their own excrement.  It is like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo, only worse because it is happening in the 21st Century.  But the article went on to describe how that country’s prison service conducted its own audit, appointed a new medical director, and allowed human rights workers access to its facilities.  The legislation Senator Inhofe and I are introducing seeks to provide incentives for those kinds of improvements.  Our bill would do the following:

First, it calls attention to this long ignored problem.  Most people know little if anything about what goes on inside foreign prisons, and many would prefer not to know. 

Second, it sets forth primary indicators for the elimination of inhumane conditions in foreign prisons and other detention facilities, such as human waste facilities that are sanitary and accessible, and adequate ventilation, food and safe drinking water. 

Third, it requires the Secretary of State to report annually on the conditions in prisons and other detention facilities in at least 30 countries receiving United States assistance or under sanction by the United States, selected by the Secretary’s determination that such conditions raise the most serious human rights or humanitarian concerns. 

Forth, it encourages the Secretary and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development to furnish assistance for the purpose of eliminating inhumane conditions where such assistance would be appropriate and beneficial. 

For countries that are not making significant efforts to eliminate such conditions, the Secretary is to enter into consultations with their government to achieve the purposes of the Act.

The legislation also provides for training of Foreign Service Officers, and directs the Secretary to designate, within the Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, an official with responsibility for implementing the provisions of the Act.

Finally, it authorizes the expenditure of funds to implement the Act.

Once enacted, the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013 will help foreign governments ensure that prisoners in their countries are treated as any people deprived of their freedom should be – as human beings, with dignity, in safety, and provided the basic necessities of life.

In countries around the world, the United States is helping to reform justice systems and strengthen the rule of law.  No justice system can claim to deliver justice if prisoners and other detainees are treated like animals, or worse.  By helping to change attitudes, and showing how with relatively little money prison conditions can be significantly improved, we can help advance the cause of justice more broadly.

Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a defender of justice.   This legislation will further that goal and it reflects the best instincts of the American people.  It has been endorsed by a wide range of groups, including Amnesty International, USA; Baptist World Alliance, Division of Freedom and Justice; Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Human Rights First; Human Rights Watch; International CURE; International Justice Mission; International Prison Chaplains’ Association; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Just Detention International; Justice Fellowship/Prison Fellowship Ministries; National Association of Evangelicals; National Religious Campaign Against Torture; New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good; Open Society Policy Center; Penal Reform International; Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  I want to thank these groups for their support and their efforts to focus attention on this urgent problem.

Identical legislation is planned for reintroduction in the House by Representative Chris Smith who cares deeply about this issue, so this is a bipartisan, bicameral effort.

Finally, I want to thank Senator Inhofe, who has visited many African countries and has witnessed the problems this legislation seeks to address, as well as his staff, who have been very helpful throughout this process.   At a time when some people seem to get satisfaction from calling Washington broken, this is another example of how two Senators, of different parties, whose political views often differ, can work together in furtherance of a just cause.  

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 STATEMENT OF SENATOR JAMES INHOFE
The Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013

It is with great pleasure that I join my friend Senator Leahy from Vermont in introducing the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013. 

As I stated when we introduced this bill in the 112th Congress, our bill seeks to identify and eliminate unhealthy and unsafe prison conditions found in developing countries like Haiti and on the African continent where millions suffer inhumane conditions as well as to address the dysfunctions in their legal systems.

The introduction of this bill comes at an appropriate time because Jon Hammer, the imprisoned U.S. Marine being held in the Cedes Prison in Matamoras, Mexico was freed this past December 21st.

Corporal Hammer, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was arrested in August and charged with a federal weapons felony — facing up to 15 years in prison, for carrying an antique gun into Mexico on his way to Costa Rica for a hunting trip,  despite, as I understand it, having a required permit and attempting to declare the gun.  During the past 90 days, he faced the same harsh conditions that our bill is trying to address.  Namely, Hammer was housed in an overcrowded and unsanitary prison, beaten by fellow inmates who were members of the murderous Mexican drug cartels, threatened with death in an extortion attempt by these inmates and chained to a bed. 

I had been involved in seeking Jon’s release for several weeks, and I was heartened when he was released.   His treatment, however, serves as an excellent example of the deficiencies found everyday in foreign prisons worldwide from Africa to no further away than our southern border. 

Our bill focuses on eliminating excessive pre-trial detention and dysfunctional justice systems which frequently result in prisoners and other detainees spending years in unhealthy prison conditions before their cases are even adjudicated.  Tragically, inadequate, misplaced or lost records often result in the incarcerated being held indefinitely because their cases have never been heard.  And unbelievably, such poor recordkeeping has kept many in prison long after their sentences have been served.  Our bill also encourages these nations to provide humane and sanitary prison conditions so that prisoners can be released in good health, and thus stem one of the causes of the spread of HIV and tuberculosis among the general public.  

Our bill calls upon the Department of State to submit to Congress an annual report for five years that describes inhuman prison conditions at least 30 countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance.  It gives the Secretary of State and Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development the discretion to restructure, reprogram or reduce U.S. foreign assistance to these countries based upon whether they are making “significant efforts” to eliminate inhuman conditions in their prisons and other detention facilities.

The goals of this bill are noble, but it will take close monitoring and hard work by our U.S. Foreign Service personnel on the ground overseas to fulfill this work.  That is why our bill directs the Secretary of State to provide training to these embassy and consulate personnel so that they can effectively investigate and assess prison conditions in foreign prisons as well as assist these foreign governments to adopt substantive prison reforms.  The Secretary is also directed to designate and task a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor with the responsibility for gathering the information for the annual report and make recommendations to the Secretary based off its conclusions.

I have made 128 African country visits over the past 16 years, and I believe that given the chance, the majority of Africa’s leaders will welcome the opportunity to interact with our embassy and consulate personnel and adopt the best practices for achieving the elimination of unhealthy and unsafe conditions in their prisons and other detention facilities.  It is also my hope that our neighbors to the south will adopt safe and sanitary prisons conditions and correct the dysfunctions in their justice systems so that another U.S. citizen does not have to spend 90 days in prison for a paperwork error. 

The task at hand reminds me of the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25:39:40 when he said, “When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” 

We are all our brothers’ keepers. 

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Press Contact

Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693