New report calls for prisoners' votes and an end to solitary confinement in prison

Monday, 17 November 2014

Votes for prisoners, a ban on strip searches and solitary confinement, and regular private family visits are just three of the recommendations in a new report aimed at improving prison standards across the European Union. The report, From national practices to European guidelines: interesting initiatives in prisons management, is being launched in London at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on Tuesday, 25 November.

Since 2013 the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has been the UK representative body on the European Prison Observatory: an eight-nation European Commission-funded collaboration promoting better practice in prison management across the European Union. The European Prison Observatory monitors and analyses the conditions of the different national prison systems, comparing these conditions to international norms and standards relevant to the protection of inmates’ fundamental rights, including in relation to the European Prison Rules of the Council of Europe.

This latest report concludes that there are promising examples of better practice in the United Kingdom. It also describes ‘several interesting initiatives… that could be an inspiration for other countries’, including the UK. In particular, it notes that according to the European Prison Rules life in prison should approximate ‘as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community’ (p.10). None of the European Union countries it reviewed came close to meeting this standard.

An example of better practice in the UK are Prison Councils (p.17). Originally recommended in 1991 by Lord Woolf following his enquiry into the Strangeways riots, Prison Councils create constructive dialogue between prisoners and prison staff, helping prisoners to think of themselves 'as people - beyond “prisoners” or “offenders” - and more importantly, as people that have value and worth’. Grendon Prison in Buckinghamshire offers a model for other countries in its approach to dynamic security. Financial support for families to visit inmates and 'video visits' was another example of UK better practice cited by the report.

Some of the other positive initiatives highlighted in the report include:

  • The right of prisoners in Poland to vote in elections (p.25).
  • Supervised access to computers and the internet in France (p.14).
  • University centres in Italy: lecturers visit and the university quality-assures tutoring and exams (p.14).
  • Family visit units in France that permit space for both privacy and intimacy (p.22).

The report concludes with ten recommendations that, it argues, would dramatically improve human rights in prisons in the UK and across the EU.

Will McMahon, deputy director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said:

‘Treating prisoners with humanity, decency and respect is the hallmark of any society that considers itself civilised. The UK has some strong foundations to build on in promoting human rights in prison. It also has some way to go in ensuring that prisoners have good family contact and access to high quality education.

'The gathering crisis in the prison system - too few staff being expected to supervise too many prisoners in deteriorating buildings - highlights the challenge the UK faces in embedding a human rights-informed approach to prison management.

'I welcome the inclusion in the report of the right of prisoners to vote in elections in Poland as a demonstration that people do not stop being citizens once they have passed through the prison gate.’


1. At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies we advance public understanding of crime, criminal justice and social harm. We are independent and non-partisan, though motivated by our values. We stand with those most vulnerable to social harm. We believe that the United Kingdom’s over reliance on policing, prosecution and punishment is socially harmful, economically wasteful, and prevents us from tackling the complex problems our society faces in a sustainable, socially just manner.

2. ‘From national practices to European guidelines: interesting initiatives in prisons management’ is available to download from the European Prison Observatory website, or below. Its UK launch is at an event at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on 25 November.

3. The Council of Europe’s European Prison Rules can be found here. The Council of Europe is the continent’s leading human rights organisation. It includes 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union. All Council of Europe member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

4. The ten recommendations for better prison practice in the report are:

  1. The development of a representative democracy inside prisons in England and Wales has been beneficial for prisoners, staff and the wider society. The development of a constructive dialogue helps to improve staff-prisoner relationships; it is transformative for prisoners and leads to a general reduction in tension across the institution. Prison governors across the EU must be encouraged to commit to the development of prison councils in all establishments.
  2. Across the EU, strip searches and solitary confinement should be banned. Cell searches should only conducted in the presence of the prisoner.
  3. The development of mediation and restorative practices over the use of disciplinary proceedings is almost entirely absent across the states involved in the European Prison Observatory. It is recommended that the EU gathers evidence on positive mediation as a restorative practice across the EU and actively communicates this research to prison administrators of the member states.
  4. Grendon Prison in Buckinghamshire has demonstrated, over half a century, how the effectiveness of dynamic security, and a therapeutic approach in delivering a better quality of life in prison leads to lower re-conviction rates. The EU should encourage the development of a trial and evaluation of the Grendon model in each member state.
  5. Poland has demonstrated that allowing prisoners the same democratic rights as other citizens acts as a symbol of citizenship and continued social participation, without challenging security. The EU should promote the universal prison franchise, as demonstrated in Poland, to encourage the responsibilisation and normalisation of prisoners and to strengthen democracy in the EU.
  6. Most prisoners come from the most disadvantaged communities in the EU and many are resident in prisons that are far away from family and friends. In these circumstances maintaining vital relationships can be difficult because visits can be very expensive for families on low incomes; it can be felt as a burden for those visiting imprisoned relatives. Meeting the travel costs of family and friends on social security payments, as demonstrated by the Assisted Prison Visits Scheme in England and Wales, and Scotland should be standard practice across the EU.
  7. When family members visit prisoners, the need for privacy and the possibility of intimacy are paramount. Research on private visiting rooms in France show them to be of benefit to relatives and friends, and to enhance family links while not compromising security. Research also indicates that tension in prison is reduced if prisoners are permitted private visits. The French Familial Visit Unities system should be implemented in all French prisons and trialled in prisons in every EU country.
  8. Digital technology offers the possibility of maintaining contact with family and friends even if travel is not possible. Across the EU, those who are unable to travel to visit prisoners (because of distance, illness, disability or age) would benefit from the adoption of the video visit schemes as developed by APEX and the Scottish Prison Service. The technology required is low cost and secure, as demonstrated in Scotland. The EU should promote the development of ‘video visits’ across the member states.
  9. There is an urgent need to bridge the digital divide for those who are on medium- and long-term prison sentences. The 21st century has witnessed a digital revolution and the speed of change means that prisoners can be cut off from such developments and are at a significant social disadvantage as a result. There is a need to establish a comprehensive programme of secure cyber-access across the EU, as has been piloted in the French penal system. The technology exists to make such access secure and for certain sites to be blocked.
  10. Access to courses focused on learning development should be the norm across the European Union. Evidence from Italy shows access to university education can be transformative for the individual in terms of self-reflection and personal development and, further, it can broaden employment opportunities following release.