• Send page
  • Print page

Visiting detainees: "The results don't happen overnight..."


In 2003 the ICRC visited almost 470,000 prisoners and detainees in about 80 countries. Or rather, a few hundred ICRC delegates, men and women, went to more than 1,900 places of detention and, through their work, tried to ensure decent conditions, stop any mistreatment, and provide a link between the prisoners and their families.

 "Good morning, my name is Lise, I am from the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have an agreement with the authorities to visit you in prison and to speak with you in private. Our purpose is to check on the conditions of detention and treatment here..."  

The introductory speech is the typical standard opening the first time ICRC delegates visit people who, because of armed conflict or other situations of violence, find themselves deprived of freedom. It's one of the initial steps in what can be a long journey towards preventing bad things happening – or trying to stop them.

"If there's one thing most people know about ICRC visits to prisoners it's that... they know virtually nothing..." 
This is a job for which there's no specific professional qualification; experience is acquired on the job. It is done by people who, according to the educational standards of most countries, would be considered among the elite. The job calls for compassion, perseverance, tact, cultural sensitivity, physical endurance, political savvy – and a strong dose of objectivity.
If there's one thing most people know about ICRC visits to prisoners it's that... they know virtually nothing. The reports are confidential, a working tool designed to build a relationship of trust and a constructive dialogue with the authorities: that way, when problems are raised, changes can be brought about and maintained.
Visiting detainees, often in remote areas, in overcrowded cells, in intense heat or freezing temperatures, is a difficult task, made even more harrowing by the emotional burden that the delegates accumulate: the outcome of countless interviews with prisoners, with their agonized tales of abuse, fear, separation from loved ones... only very occasionally is all this alleviated by any good news or humour.
The ICRC's approach was again the subject of questioning in the media after the prison abuse scandal in Iraq became public knowledge earlier this year. For this article, several experienced delegates – some of them with ICRC careers going back 30 years – agreed to comment on their work and the impact they thought it had.  

ICRC visits: a methodical approach 

  ICRC visits to people detained in connection with a conflict or political upheavals are carried out according to standard procedures, which are made clear with the detaining authorities prior to the visits:  
  • registration of the prisoners;
  • an overview of all facilities used by, or intended for, them;
  • a private talk with any or all of them, to discuss any problems they might have over their treatment or conditions;
  • if the prisoners agree, their problems are taken up with the authorities immediately, with the aim of trying to solve them;
  • the provision of standard forms for writing a brief message to their families (which after approval by the detaining authorities will be delivered by the ICRC, insofar as this is possible).

  • After the visit a confidential report is given to the authorities, underlining problems and requesting improvements where necessary.    
How delegates judge their work and the ICRC’s approach 
"..we are working in contexts where religion and ethnicity have become major issues...” 
The ICRC’s confidential approach is often criticized by outsiders, as though the organization were somehow collaborating with the torturers. But for the staff doing the job, it is essential: “Without respecting confidentiality the ICRC would have ceased to exist a long time ago,” says Abdel-Karim, adding: “The work requires a lot of negotiations, persuasion, patience… The results don’t happen overnight.”
Isabelle notes that confidentiality is not an end in itself, but something that helps to establish a relationship of trust and allows progress to be made with prison authorities (who, by and large, are rarely over-eager to let in outsiders – especially to speak to detainees in private).
She adds: “The ICRC has no power to command… people who use ethical considerations to criticize our silence forget that our work is complementary to what is done by others in this field, and that our sole interest is in obtaining access to the detainee, in order to improve conditions where necessary.”
Jacques, who in the 1970s was visiting some of Africa’s most notorious – or celebrated, depending on one’s point of view – prisoners, is convinced of the need for a confidential approach: “Taking a public position creates a risk, which is that the authorities say, well if it’s like that, you can’t continue the visits. And who pays the price? The detainees!”
Jacques also underlines the specific nature of the ICRC’s intervention for prisoners: working for long-lasting effects and following up on each intervention made, each prisoner registered.
Brigitte is also convinced that “confidentiality is a kind of tool that helps us to avoid public confrontation and allows dialogue with the authorities.”
Beyond the question of confidentiality, other factors characterize ICRC visits: “That delegates speak directly with everyone – prison directors, guards, and prisoners – treating all of them as individuals, attempting to understand their perspectives and to build a relation with each of them, is perhaps the hall-mark of ICRC visits,” says James.
His colleague Raed, a physician, notes: “The personal relationship you settle with prisoners is paramount because what you bring as a human being sometimes counts more than the " technical " work you achieve. Improvements, if any, are sometimes slow to come.”
“Empathy, the ability to listen, that ‘quality time’ you spend together, whether for a few moments, for a meal, for a chat… that’s what the detainees really appreciate most,” says Cécile, “because they (and sometimes the delegates too) have such a feeling of powerlessness confronted with their situation.”
 James adds: " The ICRC approach requires time and patience. It usually brings results – although the biggest challenge today for the ICRC is what to do if it does not... "
The changing face of conflict has also had an impact on the ICRC's work: " Times have changed, " says Vittoria, " we are working in contexts where religion and ethnicity have become major issues and this makes our work extremely difficult. "  
Do delegates think detainees understand the ICRC's way of working?  
"...prisoners receive very little feedback on the outcomes of our visits and this creates at times a distance between them and the delegates..." 
Certainly not all of them, and not straight away. After all, from the detainees’ point of view, anyone who the “oppressive regime” allows in must be suspect… The delegates are schooled from their first day to be greeted with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
Brigitte frequently went to see a group of detainees who had made their opposition quite clear: “10 minutes seems a lifetime when this accusatory silence sets in, punctuated by insults and even spitting. I knew that I was just the scapegoat for them to express their anger against the outside world, which didn’t understand what had happened to their country, to their families, to them.
“That’s what made me accept all that concentrated hatred that I met on each visit… I don’t think they would have had fond memories of us when they were set free a few months later, but at least they had had someone, once a week, on whom they could vent their anger…”
 Isabelle: “Frankly, I don’t think detainees understand our approach... we could suggest stopping our visits to a detainee who seems especially “anti” – I doubt whether many would agree to go that far.”
A former delegate, Emmanuelle, says she had been visiting prisoners who felt that their situation was hopeless, that very little had improved, and who just felt that our going there had little value. Some of them said that perhaps we s hould just stop coming. However, many others said " No, please, keep coming: the improvements might be minor, but we know that for fifteen minutes once in a while we have someone who looks us in the face and treats us like a human being. It's important! "
“Prisoners receive very little feedback on the outcomes of our visits and this creates at times a distance between them and the delegates,” says Raed.
James sees the ICRC’s mere physical presence as very important: “If the ICRC can'get its foot in the door'of prisons or military camps, detainees are, to say the least, relieved; I have known situations where the fact that a delegate has managed to register someone, the army or police know that’s been done... they know the ICRC will come back and ask the whereabouts of that person. That’s certainly made the difference between someone disappearing or not…”
But in a long-term approach, improvements are what counts for the detainees, and slow progress can be detrimental to the relationship: “The inmates felt bitter towards the ICRC because they could see no improvement in the treatment meted out to newly-arrested prisoners, no progress in their legal proceedings, no changes in the conditions at the transit centres,” says Cécile.  
Good times, bad times: what delegates remember 

 Vittoria:  I have seen prisoners, and been aware of what they have done (or at least, what they are accused of) – horrendous crimes in some cases. A delegate needs to be able to block out that knowledge in order to do his or her work. Even people who stand accused of the most atrocious crimes are entitled to fair treatment and decent conditions. This can sometimes weigh very heavily on a delegate's emotions.

 Raed:  ...there was an old guy with an acute heart problem, whom I had visited. He needed surgery but would not give his consent without my being present in the operating room. It was a question of life and death so I had to fly back and attend the operation... His trust in me really made me think we have a strong role to play.

 Katy:  ...the ways in which former detainees (many of whom are now responsible for the local security services) now use the methods which were previously applied to them.  

 And there are examples of when the ICRC will meet an individual as a detainee on one day, and as an official contact on another.

 Léo:  ...a detainee who was visited on death row in a large prison in Latin America met, a few years later, an ICRC representative at a ministerial conference in an Asian capital and asked him if he knew me. The ex-detainee, then a deputy minister, told him to thank me for my visit and the registration that followed; he believed that he was still alive because of that...

 James:  ...shortly after the end of the conflict, we arranged for the wife of a detainee to visit her husband. When we arrived at the foreboding and by then largely derelict prison, the director permitted what was coyly termed a 'conjugal visit' in a special room. The end of the day was almost as emotional for the lady – returning to the ICRC car, she slipped, fell and cut her head open. The prison nurse promptly applied a dressing to the profusely bleeding wound, before we drove back through the falling snow to the capital...  
"You cannot imagine how privileged you feel as a doctor to save lives by the hundred." 
 Raed:  ...  we convinced the authorities to turn some prison facilities into a small hospital. I spent my time there doing minor surgery and treating common diseases that could have proven fatal in this environment. We brought in food. We distributed high-nutrition biscuits, without which many would have died. I will never forget this experience. You cannot imagine how privileged you feel as a doctor to save lives by the hundred.

 Cécile:  ...a present from a detainee: a huge drawing with a few lines of verse, to thank me, well, to thank us all.

 Abdel-Karim:  ... when detainees or ex-detainees tell me: "There is Allah and just after there's the ICRC!"

 Brigitte:  ... during one visit we entered a cell where there were five men. It was very dark but we could make out their haggard and thin faces, and the astonished looks they gave us. We introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. There was silence for a moment and a man said, in a very croaky voice: "Here you are, at last..." – and he started to cry. These five guys had been captured more than a year before and after the recent fighting had been moved to a more secure place. We had never visited them, but I had their names on a list, given to us by their families who came to our office every week to ask if we had any news of them.  
"We told the woman the news and gave her the message. She went pale, cried out... and collapsed in a heap on the floor." 
 The five men naturally wanted to know about their families, and each of them filled in a Red Cross message, using every available inch of space on the form... We left the prison (after the messages had been cleared by the censor) and on our way back to base stopped to talk to our liaison officer for the opposing forces. You can imagine, we were fairly surprised to meet, right there, one of the five women who had been looking for their husbands for more than a year...!

We quickly cross-checked the name, to avoid raising any false hopes... And then, we told the woman the news and gave her the message. She went pale, cried out... and collapsed in a heap on the floor. After drinking a glass of water she pulled herself together and started crying, hugging us, almost crushing us in her arms... It's at times like that when you feel, well, perhaps we're some use after all...
 Read what former detainees think about ICRC visits.