THIS summer inmates in Argentina decided they would no longer accept measly payment for the jobs they do in prison. In June they set up a trade union that has already lodged an appeal against deductions that deny them the national minimum wage. It is the first union of its kind anywhere in the world.
Given the choice, most people would wish to be born in one of a handful of well-to-do countries: Britain, America or perhaps Switzerland. They might pick differently if they plan on doing time. Countries differ greatly both in how many people they lock up, and in how they treat their prisoners. Jails in rich places offer clean cells and adequate food, but those that promise more particular rights are increasingly found elsewhere.
Take the right to vote. Most European countries now let prisoners cast ballots. In 2006 Ireland gave jailbirds a say; Israel and South Africa have also ruled disenfranchisement illegal, as did Hong Kong in 2009. Britain, defying a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, refuses to budge. So does India, the world’s largest democracy. And America, deeply illiberal on law and order, bans nearly 6m convicted felons from the ballot box–even though many of them have been released.
Enlightened health and education policies outside prison do not always mean good facilities within. Many countries run needle exchanges for drug addicts as these halt the spread of HIV and other viruses. But authorities in only 10 countries hand syringes out to inmates. Spain and Moldova have facilities in every prison; even Iran and Kyrgyzstan offer the service in a few. Rick Lines of Harm Reduction International, a lobby group, says more should follow because drugs are “a fact inside”.
Prisoners in the Philippines (pictured dancing) are among the few allowed to surf the web, albeit closely supervised. In November Tanzania’s government, worried by high rates of sexual abuse in jails, said it may introduce conjugal visits (and thus the chance to reproduce). In 2011 Brazil and Costa Rica formally extended that right to all gay prisoners; Israel did the same in July. But prudish Britain bans all such encounters; Ireland even mooted ending across-the-table contact and putting visitors behind a Perspex screen. Meanwhile opportunities for prisoners to work, retrain and help local people are blossoming in unlikely places. Peter Bennett, a former British prison governor who heads Essex University’s International Centre for Prison Studies, says China is surprisingly active in teaching wrongdoers useful new skills.
How a country treats its prisoners depends a lot on what the authorities think incarceration is for. Scandinavians favour rehabilitation. They see prison as a last resort, and loss of freedom arduous without extra hardship. Life for Norway’s 3,600 prisoners is quotidian–with bungalows, televisions and mini-markets–to prepare them for release. America, meanwhile, emphasises retribution. Incarceration is common. “Warehousing” aims only to keep criminals off the streets.
Campaigners can change a government’s practices, especially if they work within the system. Mr Lines says lobbying from prison doctors was the main reason for Moldova’s needle exchanges. Conversely, political opportunism often worsens conditions. Arizona’s Joe Arpaio made his reputation as “America’s toughest sheriff” by cutting liberties in local jails. Amnesty International, a lobby group, has denounced his “Tent City”: an overflow prison where inmates live under canvas.
Academics moan that policymakers shun statistics. Research shows that few prisons rehabilitate people, that recidivism is common everywhere and that harsh jail conditions may make it even more likely. Great diversity among the world’s prison systems makes it hard to detect a global trend towards leniency or toughness. But Nils Christie, a criminologist at Oslo University, worries that countries with rising social inequality may end up locking more people away. “The closer you are to others the more you think about how you treat them,” he says.
Spending cuts are encouraging places such as Texas to shrink their prisons. Although austerity may encourage authorities to cut facilities within jails, it also makes it easier for advocates of liberal prison policies to be heard. “This is creating space for consideration of evidence-based policymaking that wasn’t there a few years ago,” says Alec Ewald, a law professor at Vermont University. For now it is only patchy progress.
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