Archived page: may contain outdated information!
  • Send page
  • Print page

Visits to prisoners by the ICRC

31-01-1997 Article, Torture, Supplementum No.1, 28-30 p., 1997, by Hernán Reyes

This article was published in the journal TORTURE, Supplementum No.1, 28-30 p., 1997, and reproduced with the kind authorization of the publisher.

 ICRC preliminary  sine qua non conditions  

 Access to all / any detainees l prisoners  


 Talks in private with all / any detainees / prisoners chosen by the ICRC delegates  


 Registration allowed of all / any detainees / prisoners (identities, etc)  


 Repetition of visits when ICRC deems necessary  

The present outline explains some of the specific points relating to ICRC visits to prisoners. The more general information on the context of these visits, and of the ICRC mandate in particular, is detailed elsewhere (Chapter 7 in International Responses to Traumatic Stress Danieli, Rodley, Weisaeth et al., Baywood Publishers (United Nations) 1996).

Before the ICRC visits prisoners, it has to reach an agreement with the detaining authorities on several conditions that must be agreed sine qua non. Access to all prisoners and detainees means that the ICRC should be allowed to see any and all per sons. No prisoner should be withheld or hidden from its delegates. If the ICRC obtains information about a person that has not been seen, it can immediately ask to see that person. In any given place where detainees and prisoners are held, the ICRC may choose to see all of them, or only those it may select, without any restriction from the authorities.

The second condition is the “pillar” of ICRC visits. It is the possibility to talk to any detainee or prisoner in private, in a place of ICRC’s choosing and, if necessary, with an interpreter again chosen by the ICRC. In some cases, the ICRC may decide to hold preliminary interviews in groups, so as to introduce in work, get general information on prison conditions and also to “break the ice” during a first visit. ICRC delegates will then proceed to talk to prisoners in private, to all or to any it chooses to see. No detainee or prisoner shall be denied the right to talk in private with the ICRC. In private means without the presence of anyone else, so as to avoid any and all untoward influences during the interviews.

The two final conditions go together. It must be agreed before the visit begins that a subsequent follow-up visit shall be allowed; this is not only to ensure continuity, but also to see that there have been no reprisals or coercion of any kind after the ICRC visit. As the ICRC visits people and not prisons, it is essential that the names of detainees and prisoners be registered in ICRC filing, so as to be able to look individuals up the next time. For this reason, the ICRC shall either be given lists of prisoners which it can verify and check independently during its interviews, or be allowed to draw up its own lists of detainees and prisoners. These lists will also include information on family contacts, so as to be able to follow up detainees and prisoners when they are released.

 The purpose of ICRC visits  

 To prevent or put a stop to forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings  


 To prevent or put an end to torture and ill-treatment  


 To have conditions of detention improved when and where necessary  

 To restore contact between prisoners and their families  

The purpose of ICRC visits to detainees and prisoners can be summarized as mainly four:

First, to try to prevent people who are arrested from disappearing, either by summary or extra-judicial executions, or into unacknowledged detention. Information on such cases will be obtained from many sources, among which the interviews with detainees and prisoners.

Second, the ICRC will try to put a stop to any practices of ill-treatment and torture it may encounter. The ICRC will at the same time also undertake any demarches necessary to ensure that victims of torture or ill-treatment are treated. The intrinsic value of visits from the outside to all persons who have been submitted to torture has to be underlined

Third, the conditions of detention will be objectively assessed during the visit, and any improvements necessary be demanded from the authorities. Sometimes the ICRC will also assist in improving such conditions, without how-

ever relieving the detaining authorities from their responsibilities to keep detainees and prisoners alive and in good health.

Fourth, the visit shall also allow prisoners and detainees to reestablish contact with their families. This may be done in various ways, such as through Red Cross messages, arranging for family visits to those in detention, or direct contacts with the families via ICRC delegates.

 The general tour: watch out for ...  

 ... Signs of discrimination (“economy, business, first class ")  

 ... The prison ‘jungle” (groups, castes,...)  


 ... “Warning signals”...  

 (Seeing the whole prison doesn’t mean you understand everything..)  

The general tour of the premises is an essential moment of the visit. It should be carried out by all members of the visiting team so that they all can get a complete overview of the living conditions in the prison environment. Living quarters, kitchens, latrines and other hygienic facilities, courtyards and other recreational places, visiting areas, punishment blocks, and any and all other places that relate to prison life should be thoroughly visited.

In any prison, and particularly a large one, the differences between sections should be duly noted. Differences in infrastructure, in accommodations, in the general appearance of the premises should be noted. Even more important, differences between the aspect of the people in different sections should be observed and noted for further assessment during the systematic interviews later on. Detainees and prisoners always have internal hierarchies, and differences and inequalities may be observed during the general tour. Warning signals are sometimes given indirectly by the prisoners themselves during the tour. (It should be noted that the tour is usually done accompanied by personnel from the administration – sometimes even the director himself. This is for reasons of access, as visitors don’t know their way around and obviously do not have the keys to open cells and corridors!). Prisoners may try to convey anxiety or fear, or communicate in other ways with the visiting team. Provocative behaviour or, on the contrary, obsequious attitudes must never be taken face value. All these signals warrant further scrutiny during the inter-views in groups and in private!

After the general tour, the authorities often tend to think that the visiting team has “seen everything”. On the contrary: it is just the beginning. It is essential to exchange impressions and information after the tour, amongst the team members, and “rethink the visit” accordingly.

 General tour – difficulties  

 Having sufficient time ...  

 Tour before talking ...  

 Who should be the guide?  

 How to know where you are? ...  

 Role distribution within the team ..  

 Introductory speech to inmates ...  

 Not stigmatizing any specific inmate ...  

Specific “hints” on how to get the most information out of the general tour without mishaps can be given here:

  • Always make sure there is sufficient time for the whole tour. Prisons can be very complex, and gates and doors tend always to be closed with the missing key when you are in a hurry. Don’t allow the team to be “coerced” into shortening the tour because of lack of time!

  • It is essential for the general tour to take place before beginning the interviews; otherwise the team members will not be familiar with the premises. This may not only make it difficult to understand certain situations, but may also give prisoners the impression that the team is not professional ...

  • The general tour may be difficult to plan if the layout of the prison is not known in advance. The layout should be explained to the team during the initial talk with the authorities. With this information, the team may suggest an itinerary. Whatever course the tour actually takes, the team should keep in mind that they should see all the places that are relevant to life within the prison.

  • Prisons are often labyrinths. It may be useful, if this is an issue, to designate one member of the team to take specific notes on the layout as the tour proceeds, and to ensure that all places have been visited, and that no section has been “forgotten”. It may not be possible (or allowed!) to draw up a map of the premises during the actual tour. The notes taken should, however, allow such a map to be drawn up after the tour, so that all team members understand the layout of the prison. It may not be possible to repeat the tour, so it is important to get it right the first time.

  • Role distribution between members of the team is also important on other issues. One member may keep track of actual occupancy: taking down the numbers of prisoners per cell or ward (the number announced by the ward leader and any other figure that may be given by another prisoner) so as to compare with official numbers. Another (preferably the doctor) will make clinical observations on all factors relating to health, and specifically evaluate the clinical state of the prisoners in their different sections. Yet another member may concentrate on any particular aspect of detention relevant to that prison. It must be remembered that the team leader will often be “taken up” by the accompanying official, and will not be able him or herself to evaluate any great deal.

  • In all sections where prisoners are encountered, the team should introduce itself and its work. It should also explain the purpose of the visit, and particularly the general tour. (Often prisoners do not understand why an outside team is accompanied by the prison director or other officials ...). Of paramount importance is to state clearly that interviews in private with prisoners will take place afterwards. In the, it is hoped, unlikely event that the visit has to be suspended after the tour, at least the intention was clear, otherwise the prisoners will think that the whole visit was centred on the accompanied general tour!

  • Particular care must be taken not to stigmatize any individual during the tour. Sometimes prisoners may decide to be “ daring” and make denunciations of the very director accompanying the team! It should be clearly explained, in such a situation that the team will come back and talk to anybody who has anything to say, but that the tour is not the place for such talks. Th is reassures the authorities about the team's way of working, and it may prevent the “daring” prisoner from getting himself into serious trouble. On the other hand, if the outburst was a provocation, it shows that the visiting team works in a professional way.

 The interpreter  

Local person

- >


Co-detainee or fellow inmate

- >

With precautions


- >

Whenever possible

The interpreter is arguably one of the most important members of the team. He/she is the person who gets the information “first hand” from the detainee or prisoner. Inversely, the interpreter must be able to convey the purpose and the reasons for the visit. Team members may not be fully knowledgeable on customs and local ethnic considerations: the interpreter has to know about them so as to convey the true meanings of what is said.

As a general rule, local personnel should never be used for interviews with detainees and prisoners. The reasons should be obvious. Even though such personnel may be totally trustworthy, the people visited in custody do not know this, and have no reason to trust anyone local. They may therefore refuse to talk to the visiting team. Much worse, they may not dare to object, and consequently not tell the team members about the real problems they fear to say in the presence of local personnel they have no reason to trust.

Locals may furthermore be put under pressure by police or others, security forces for example, to give information on the people seen in prison. Using local interpreters may lead to such situations, which is furthermore totally unacceptable for their own safety!

Co-detainees or fellow prisoners should also, whenever possible, be avoided. The exception may be when a prisoner (for example speaking only a dialect for which no interpreter can be found) clearly demonstrates that he/she wants to call up a friend to ensure the translation. Otherwise, “friendly” prisoners knowledgeable in languages should be avoided. They may be collaborators with the authorities, and even if that is not the case, he/she may be simply from a different clan or group that does not have the full trust of the person to be interviewed. So as to avoid any misunderstanding or mistrust, the best solution is always to use expatriate interpreters, who are visibly members of the team, and not local!

Related sections