Sexual and gender-based violence in prisons continues to be under-reported and receives inadequate attention from authorities and other actors. A new report on countries in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the issue is often not adequately integrated into prison oversight, monitoring or response mechanisms. In Canada, authorities were criticised after a report published in 2020 about the prevalence of sexual coercion and violence in federal correctional institutions continues to receive a slow response.
Research continues to show that men and boys are at high risk of sexual violence in places of detention. A new study on sexual violence in male prisons in Kenya found that such violence was rampant and that authorities failed to document and address the issue. Sexual violence against men and boys in fragile and conflict-affected states has attracted some attention recently (see Fragile and conflict-affected states).
The needs of survivors of sexual violence in detention are also rarely adequately met or recognised. In the US, recent initiatives have sought to enable imprisoned survivors of sexual violence to become part of the #MeToo movement and share their stories even though they are not able to do so via social media.
Regular reports of torture and excessive use of force against people in prison in all regions of the world persist. Authorities in Argentina reported 176 alleged cases of torture or ill-treatment in federal prisons in 2020 and 77 from January to June 2021, and 16 violent deaths of people detained in federal prisons in 2020. In Ecuador, hundreds of people were killed in prisons in gang-related violence during 2021. The violence has been linked to a lack of rehabilitation programmes, overcrowding and a lack of properly trained administrative and front-line staff. In December 2021, the Ecuadorian President announced an expert commission to investigate and help end prison violence. In New Zealand, women in segregated housing were subjected to strict and prolonged solitary confinement and routinely disciplined, violently restrained, forcibly stripped of their clothing and searched.
The availability of drugs – or lack thereof – in prisons, is also closely linked to levels of violence and the maintenance of security. In some countries, reductions in prison visiting led to a reduction in drug supply, which led in turn to a spike in violent unrest and increasing fears of violence against staff. In other countries, including Scotland, there has been a recent rise in seizures of psychoactive drugs such as ‘spice’ as methods of smuggling contraband changed. Concerns have also been raised that, as in-person prison visits resume, there is a high risk of overdose among those who stopped or reduced their drug use during family visit suspensions.
Reports show that prison staff remain at high risk of violence in carrying out their work. In Canada, a survey of female employees of the Correctional Service found that nearly 40% said they do not feel mentally or emotionally safe at work, and nearly one-third reported being the targets of harassment or violence in the past five years because of their gender. In Trinidad and Tobago, there have been recent systematic acts of violence towards prison personnel, including the killing of two officers and threats of death against others. In England and Wales, assaults on prison staff have increased by 247% since 2010, with one in four staff reporting being physically attacked at work over the last year, and one in ten having been assaulted twice or more in the same period.
Despite the challenges facing prison systems in recent years, there have been some promising practices and innovative approaches to the prevention of torture and effective implementation of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This has included the establishment of new or updated complaints mechanisms and improvements in access to information and systems of communications. In December 2021, the Southeast Asian National Human Rights Institution Forum (SEANF) adopted new guidelines on torture prevention in partnership with the Association for the Prevention of Torture. This initiative will help to inform the work of the six national human rights institutions from the region in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Timor Leste.