From petty bribery to large-scale misappropriation of funds, corruption is rife throughout the criminal justice process in many countries and has serious implications both for the human rights of detainees and the efficient administration of justice. While anecdotal evidence about corrupt activities is plentiful, more attention is now being paid by high-level bodies and by civil society organisations, including PRI, to examining the links between the protection of human rights and corruption. PRI’s Policy Director, Andrea Huber, describes the numerous ways in which corruption manifests itself in many criminal justice systems.
This blog was adapted from a presentation given at a joint side-event with Transparency International on Corruption and its impact on Human Rights at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly on 21 October 2014.
Corruption occurs at every stage of the criminal justice chain. It occurs in police stations, prosecutors’ offices, the judiciary and in prisons. It might be a reason why a person is detained in the first place, but it might also affect their ability to access due process, to access the most basic rights and services in detention, and even their ability to stay safe from harm.
At the start of the chain, the police may misuse their power of arrest to extort money. After arrest, bribes may need to be paid to prevent torture or other abuse. During criminal proceedings victims and victims’ families may have to pay bribes to move a case forward with the police or prosecution. Corruption has been identified as an important factor behind the slow pace of criminal justice administration in many countries. A Nigerian Federal High Court Chief Judge said, “Corruption is the only reason that can explain the snail’s speed at which the administration of criminal justice works”.
But corruption can be a factor behind excessive incarceration beyond pre-trial. There are documented cases of detainees held beyond their release date because prison officials use the prospect of release as leverage to demand payment for processing the necessary paperwork. In another much-reported case – nicknamed ‘cash for kids’ ̶ a judge was accused of helping to put juvenile defendants behind bars – and giving them longer sentences – allegedly receiving $2.8m from a profit-making detention centre in return.
Corruption can also hinder access to court hearings and appeal procedures. Detainees may have to pay for transfers from detention to court to be able to attend their court hearings. This can have severe consequences for the due process of law. As one lawyer said: “As word spreads amongst inmates that the opportunity to attend an appeal hearing still comes with a hefty price tag, far beyond the means of the vast majority of prisoners, many will come to one of two conclusions – not to appeal at all, or to allow their appeal to go ahead in absentia.”
Finally, prisons – often places with little transparency or public oversight – are high risk environments for corruption. In some cases, detainees are actively involved in and initiate corrupt practices in a prison. Some prisons are home to large black markets and can become havens for criminal groups operating from behind bars. Prisoners cooperate with prison guards to smuggle in contraband items, such as cell phones or drugs, and help a gang culture to thrive – or even dominate – inside prison.
Corrupt practices like these have implications broader than the illicit activities themselves. Their existence and survival depends on the dismantling of regulations that are meant to ensure the safety and security of all prisoners – as well as staff, and replacing them with the rule of the most ruthless. It is not surprising in these circumstances that those not involved in corrupt activities, and in particular individuals who belong to vulnerable groups, are often left defenceless against abuse and exploitation.
In corrupt prison systems, “everything has its price”. Prisoners are commonly forced to pay for commodities they are entitled to, such as food, water, medical care, living space – or to receive family visits.
Safety probably constitutes the most high-value “good” inside prisons, with many reports of money being extorted in exchange for safety. Families, for example, must pay to have their family member relocated to a safe zone within the prison in order to save them from physical and sexual abuse by both prison guards and fellow inmates.
Corrupt practices can include inmates being thrown into solitary confinement for alleged misbehaviour, and being charged to leave and/or to have the incident removed from their disciplinary record to avoid a negative impact on parole or early release.
For women detainees in particular, corruption can be linked to sexual exploitation. Numerous reports describe prison guards extorting sexual favours for basic services, or for better treatment such as better sleeping places, food or access to hygiene products. As one female prisoner described: “If you exchange sexual favours you are treated better. If you don’t you are treated like crap.” “If you are not one of the favourites, you can be written up for petty (disciplinary) offences.” Prisoners often submit to sexual advances as the only means to secure assistance or protection, suggesting a form of “survival sex”.
Corrupt practices may also include forced labour, where prisoners are forced to work in dangerous conditions for low wages and doing jobs that have no vocational or training value. However, prisoners may be desperate to work, despite the conditions, either to get money to pay for basic services, or because refusal will result in reprisals such as solitary confinement or being denied visitation rights.
There are also examples of funds intended for prison supplies or services being diverted or stolen. In one country for example, prison officials were arrested for having diverted USD 700,000 – intended for supplies that were never purchased. In the same year, 100 prisoners died of malnutrition.
Besides the inherent violations of human rights and the rule of law, corrupt practices have a wider impact on the criminal justice system too. Illicit profitmaking opportunities such as those described above create a strong incentive to maintain the status quo, with the funds needed or even allocated for reform never reaching their destination.
Corruption and the violation of human rights of people deprived of their liberty are inextricably interlinked. Ensuring human rights and the rule of law in the criminal justice system requires clamping down on practices that pervert and divert the course of justice into a trade – with impunity.
Read our recent statement to the 13th session of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee in August 2014 on the negative impact of corruption on human rights.