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Independent, Dependent, Interdependent: An Outsider’s Reflections on Prison Monitoring



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Guest post by Liv S. Gaborit, Research Assistant at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture where she works in the department for Preventing Torture in Places of Detention. Liv specialises in prison research from a social psychological perspective, connecting societal structures to individual experiences. Her work is focused on prisons in the global south, with involvement in the Philippines, Sierra Leone, and the MENA region.

From the 23rd to the 26th of April a group of 45 prison monitors from across the Middle East and North African (MENA) region gathered in Beirut for the biannual meeting of the Regional Forum for Monitoring Places of Detention. Arranged by DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture in cooperation with its project partner Restart Center, this international event sought to share ideas and strategies among groups working to prevent torture in detention. In this post I summarise some of the key issues that were covered in a bid to better understand the complex and varied nature of prison monitoring.


Irmemeen Prison, Jordan, 2010 (Photo: Anders Bernhoft/DIGNITY)
DIGNITY works with a mix of civil society actors engaged in prison monitoring in the MENA region. These monitors don’t often have a legal mandate to access prisons and must apply different strategies to enter. While the functional independence of monitoring mechanisms as well as their personnel is usually assumed to be necessary to create objective reports, it soon became clear that there was a discrepancy between the ideal of independent monitoring and the actual practices of monitors who often depended on state authorities to grant them access to the places they monitor. Some work with a Memorandum of Understanding with a prison authority; others operate as service providers; still others are prevented from gaining access and must therefore develop methods for indirect monitoring.

At the forum, NGOs who were service providers and the more legally-focused monitoring agencies shared opinions on how to approach the issue of independence. Those offering services in prison, undertake regular visits, using their familiarity to gain in depth knowledge of the institution. For example, one organisation explained how the people they had offered rehabilitation, served as key informants and gatekeepers inside the prison. Another reported asking the Shawish (inmate leader) whom to talk to. The service providers gave the impression they knew the everyday life of the prisons and were able to deploy such knowledge as their base from which to gather further information.

In contrast, participants from the more legally-focused NGOs, who have more peripheral involvement with the prison authorities, expressed concerns about the possible bias arising from following former clients or inmate leaders when monitoring prisons. These groups called for caution about the power this strategy could grant certain inmates. They argued for the importance of talking to a random selection of interviewees during monitoring visits in creating objective reports.


Irmemeen Prison, Jordan, 2010\n(Photo: Anders Bernhoft/DIGNITY)
Concern was also expressed about the close relationship between service providers and prison authorities when we visited Lebanese prisons. In several prisons we witnessed NGOs who had offices inside the prisons from which they offered health and education services – services the prison authorities would typically be expected to provide. This was especially visible in the juvenile department of Roumieh Prison where a series of NGOs had each their workshop which offered different kinds of trainings or support for the juveniles (e.g., secondary school, barbers training, computer classes and services from social workers and a psychologist). This practice allowed them full access to the prison. Indeed, during our visit were saw no guards inside the prison building at all, only prisoners and the staff from the NGO who guided us. By standing in for the prison authorities to alleviate prisoners’ most grave problems, the NGOs placed themselves in a dilemma. How could they force the prison authorities to change when their own services were helping to ameliorate prison conditions? And how could they bring themselves to terminate their services in the name of change while knowing that prisoners would be the first to suffer?

For those NGOs who offered such services, the answer lay in adding a monitoring component to their work. On the one hand, they cooperated with the system to gain access and alleviate the immediate pains of prisoners. On the other, they refused to adopt the values of prison authorities, maintaining their focus on respecting the human rights of the prisoners by scrutinising and criticising the authorities.

So, how far should monitors go for access and independence? Must one be sacrificed for the other? The NGOs represented at the forum had reached different answers to this question and chose a variety of strategies for their encounters with prisons. My knowledge about their work is insufficient to conclude whether some of them have chosen better strategies than others. However, my involvement with the research project Understanding Prison Reform, conducted with prison reform NGOs in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines, leads me to believe that the particular styles with which NGOs approach prisons reflect the demands and obstacles of their particular local context.

The different approaches of NGOs are meaningful to the specific local context and call for further exploration of new ways of understanding the independence or interdependence of monitoring mechanisms. Those who might argue for full independence overlook the dependence inherent in encounters between monitors and prison authorities. The monitor is inevitably dependent on the law or on the prison authorities to grant access. At the same time, the monitor must be able to act independently in order to subject the prison authorities to scrutiny and critique. It is also imperative that monitoring results in dependable reports, which must be valid and truthful no matter what level of interdependence exists in the relation between monitoring agency and prison authority.

If we understand all prison monitoring as a balancing act between independence, dependence and interdependence, all prison monitors face dilemmas similar to the ones that were so visible at the forum. As we learned at the forum, there are many roads through the prison landscape with differing levels and kinds of independence and dependence. The goal, however, remains the same: a dependable report that can be the basis of positive change.

For more on monitoring places of (immigration) detention, see earlier posts on Draft Standards Framework for the Treatment of Immigration Detainees and Developing European Standards of Detention.

For a photo blog on Roumiah Prison, see here.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Gaborit L (2014) Independent, Dependent, Interdependent: An Outsider’s Reflections on Prison Monitoring. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/independent_dependent/ (Accessed [date]).

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