Violent conflict has grown dramatically since 2010 with more violent conflicts now than at any time in the past 30 years. In 2020, 23 per cent of the world’s population lived in the 57 ‘fragile’ and ‘extremely fragile’ contexts identified by the OECD’s fragility framework. This includes 76.5 per cent of the world population living in extreme poverty9 and at least 13 per cent of the global prison population, totalling over 1.4 million people.
The situation in fragile settings has become more complex, with climate change and other new risks. The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fragile and conflict-affected settings is yet to be fully seen, with predictions that an additional 10 million people in such settings were pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, undoing decades of advancements in poverty reduction and development.
The security situation within prison systems in fragile and conflict-affected contexts is usually weak, compounded by underlying structural deficiencies, inadequate staffing and poor detention conditions. Overcrowding is a common issue; of the 57 fragile contexts, 42 report prison population totals exceeding their official capacities, including 16 countries exceeding them by 200 per cent and 6 by 300 per cent. Facilities in such settings generally lack the infrastructure and expertise to counter the security threats they face, and authorities are unable to ensure the safe custody, health and wellbeing of detainees. Escapes, protests and other security incidents are common.
There is increasing recognition that instability within prisons can result in serious consequences for broader rule of law and security. A study of prison systems in Yemen for example found that ‘… insecure prisons, or violations of rights in prisons, can lead to both short and long-term societal discontent and either spark or reignite conflict.’ Unsafe prisons and weak governance also breed criminalisation, radicalisation leading to terrorism or violence, or recruitment and mobilisation for terrorism – a common threat attracting attention from governments around the world.
During conflicts, entire facilities and basic infrastructure are at risk from indiscriminate or intentional bombing, impacting sewage systems, the supply of water and electricity, and in some cases leading to deaths and mass escapes. Prisons are targeted for attacks in attempts to release or kill members of different warring factions. Shelling attacks in Yemen which hit a women’s prison killed five women and one child in April 2020. In October 2020, armed forces are reported to have freed more than 1,300 detainees in an attack on a facility in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Central African Republic, more than 300 people are believed to have escaped from prisons which were attacked or abandoned by security forces during election related violence in late 2020 and early 2021.
When a country or region is in conflict, criminal justice systems– police, courts and prisons – may collapse along with other core government functions, and without the rule of law, impunity reigns. Human rights violations become widespread and people in prison may have no mechanism to seek justice or redress. In these situations, women and children are particularly at risk. The military may take over control of prisons, or they may be run by different warring factions. Groups fighting the incumbent government are likely to set up their own justice systems, including unofficial detention facilities. Many prisons in fragile and conflict-affected areas suffer from chronic overcrowding due to the mass imprisonment of fighters and the collapse of court systems.
In Syria, for example, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence and death in detention have been documented in detention facilities operated by all parties to the conflict. Types of detention facilities range from makeshift places in basements and schools, to purpose-built prisons operated by different warring parties as territorial control has shifted. This has included war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the context of detention.
Also in Yemen, the criminal justice system has been devastated by years of conflict, a lack of trained personnel and a lack of funding. Prisons have been destroyed in air strikes and others have fallen under the control of opposition groups. Security is weak across all prisons, and staff have limited ability to control or care for people in prison, with some power and functions delegated to detainees. Particular concerns have been raised over the treatment of detainees in detention facilities outside of government control, including unlawful detention, systematic enforced disappearances, torture and deaths in custody in detention facilities.
In Afghanistan, the UN found that, in government run prisons in 2019-2020, 30 per cent of people interviewed provided credible accounts of abuse and mistreatment. Researchers did not have access to detention facilities run by the Taliban or other opposition groups. Effective monitoring of human rights violations in fragile and conflict affected settings, including in detention facilities, becomes increasingly dangerous, if not impossible.
The daily challenges faced in all prison settings are magnified in fragile and conflict affected areas, and the problems impacting broader society are reflected within prisons. Common issues include shortages of food, medical supplies and equipment due to a failing economy, and damage or disruption to supply chains. Services, goods and rehabilitation programmes are likely to be cancelled or disrupted. Regular contact with family and friends may not be possible.
In these circumstances, and particularly in the context of ongoing conflict, penal reform efforts may face significant barriers, but organisational changes and improvements to welfare in just one detention facility can have a significant impact on security more generally. The use of alternatives to imprisonment is also an important consideration in transitional states, potentially proving a key factor in longer-term stability efforts. These measures become increasingly possible where conflict is protracted and particularly where fighting changes over time with different levels of intensity and shifting geographical impact. In Yemen and the Central African Republic, for example, PRI has been engaged in providing emergency assistance but are also involved in strategic longer-term initiatives to rebuild effective systems.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.