Torture thrives in darkness. This is why it is most frequent in places of detention, such as police stations, jails, and prisons, which are out of sight for most of society.
Over 10 million people worldwide live behind bars, including in pre-trial detention. Many more are locked in psychiatric institutions, military detention, and closed refugee camps, which can also be places where torture or ill-treatment festers.
Places of detention are characterized by an imbalance of power between authorities and inmates, which can lead to absolute arbitrariness.
Some of the drivers of torture include forcing confessions to artificially solve cases and boost careers, extorting bribes from the prisoners and/or their families, or the crude spreading of fear to entrench power.
Beyond active torture by security staff, detention conditions can also amount to torture or other ill-treatment. This is the case when 50 people are detained in a cell meant for seven, when prisoners live in filth without decent food or access to healthcare, and when violence among inmates is tolerated or even encouraged. Prolonged solitary detention can also cause unbearable suffering that amounts to psychological torture.
A lack of funding and a general disregard for people in detention explain why overcrowding and poor access to basic foodstuffs, hygiene, and healthcare are widespread in many countries.
In Afghanistan, we found that an estimated 80% of all women prisoners underwent virginity tests
Detained children are particularly vulnerable, as are women. Women and girls are particularly at risk of sexual torture, whether by prison staff or male prisoners. Specific forms of torture or other ill-treatment include using shackles and handcuffs during labour and immediately after childbirth and the absence of appropriate medical care, invasive body searches, or “virginity tests” in detention. LGBTIQ or transgender inmates are often at risk of heightened abuse. At the OMCT, we pay specific attention to the needs of detained women and children and other groups in detention who are specifically vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment.
In Mexico, imprisoned women arrested by the Navy report being raped in 41% of cases
The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be particularly dangerous in places of detention, as overcrowding, poor hygiene conditions, and insufficient healthcare are perfect breeding grounds for the virus. In addition, in a number of countries, isolation measures have deprived detainees of any contact with families and lawyers, leaving them without any form of protection or even without access to much-needed extra food supplies.
Together with our SOS-Torture Network members, we work to end torture and improve living conditions in detention. We often cooperate with National Prevention Mechanisms (NPMs) - local bodies tasked with preventing torture in detention. We organise country missions, conduct joint visits to prisons, document the abuses, train NPM members, and advocate with the authorities.
New Guidance Note: Urgent need to open prison doors to civil society
World Children’s Day: time to prioritise alternatives to child detention