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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I am very pleased to join today with the senior Senator from Oklahoma, Senator Inhofe, in reintroducing legislation that has already attracted broad support from across the social and political spectrum. An almost identical version was reported by the Foreign Relations Committee two years ago, and then last December it was cleared by both sides for passage by unanimous consent but the Senate adjourned shortly before it could be adopted.

This bill, titled the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013, seeks to address a much neglected, global human rights and humanitarian problem--the inhumane treatment of people in foreign prisons and other detention facilities.

On any given day, millions of people are languishing in foreign prisons, many in pretrial detention having never been brought before a judge or formally charged or proven guilty of anything, deprived of their freedom in abysmal conditions, often for years longer than they could have been sentenced to prison if convicted.

Others are imprisoned after being convicted of offenses, often after woefully unfair trials, including for nothing more than peacefully expressing political or religious beliefs or defending human rights. Regardless of their status they have one thing in common. They are deprived of the most basic rights and necessities--safe water, adequate food, essential medical care, personal safety, and dignity.

Anyone who has been inside one of these facilities, or seen photographs or press reports of what they are like, understands that this is about the mistreatment of human beings in ways that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

A few examples illustrate the point. In Haiti's National Penitentiary before the 2010 earthquake, more than 4,100 prisoners were confined in a space built for less than 900. Many did not have room to lie down and had to sleep standing up. Sanitation was practically non-existent. Deadly contagious diseases were rampant. The overwhelming majority of inmates had never been formally charged, never seen a lawyer or a judge. The earthquake damaged the prison and the prison guards fled, leaving the inmates to fend for themselves without food or water. They managed to get out, but the squalid facility filled up again.

Senator Whitehouse and I visited that facility just last month. It currently holds more than 3,700 prisoners of which more than 3,400 are awaiting trial. Thanks to the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a small Florida-based organization, Health Through Walls, a new infirmary and X-ray machine have dramatically reduced the incidence of HIV and tuberculosis. A small Vermont-based organization, the Rural Justice Center, is using USAID funds to chip away at the pretrial detention problem. These are examples of how modest funding can save lives and improve access to justice for prisoners in facilities plagued by abysmal conditions.

I recall a newspaper article about how in Benin, in West Africa, the skin of prisoners was ragged from the extraction of fly larvae, an affliction that is symptomatic of the deplorable conditions. Many inmates suffer from tuberculosis, scabies, parasites, lung infections or other illnesses. The prison in Abomey, located in southern Benin, was built in 1904 to house a maximum of 150 prisoners. A year or two ago, more than 1,000 were reportedly confined there.

Last February, a fire at the Comayagua Prison in Honduras killed 360 inmates. In one overcrowded cell block only four of 105 prisoners survived. More than half of those who died were waiting to be charged or tried.

It is common in prisons from Latin America to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia for inmates to be severely malnourished and to go for months without being able to wash. Many prisoners depend for survival on food brought to them by relatives. In many countries individuals awaiting trial, young and old, are housed together with convicted, violent criminals.

Prisoners and other detainees in many countries are also routinely victimized by poorly trained, abusive guards who are virtually unsupervised and unaccountable to any higher authority. Sexual abuse of men, women and children is common.

Prisoners in many countries die in prison from lack of proper medical care. Inmates suffer from AIDS and other illnesses in facilities with no medical records, where doctors do not enter. Prisoners intentionally cut or otherwise harm themselves in the hope of receiving medical attention for life-threatening illnesses. If and when they are released they infect the local population.

A New York Times article described how prisoners in one African country were punished by being stripped naked and held in solitary confinement in small, windowless cells, sometimes for days on end, in ankle-to-calf-high water contaminated with their own excrement. It is like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo, only worse because it is happening in the 21st Century. But the article went on to describe how that country's prison service conducted its own audit, appointed a new medical director, and allowed human rights workers access to its facilities. The legislation Senator Inhofe and I are introducing seeks to provide incentives for those kinds of improvements. Our bill would do the following:

First, it calls attention to this long ignored problem. Most people know little if anything about what goes on inside foreign prisons, and many would prefer not to know.

Second, it sets forth primary indicators for the elimination of inhumane conditions in foreign prisons and other detention facilities, such as human waste facilities that are sanitary and accessible, and adequate ventilation, food and safe drinking water.

Third, it requires the Secretary of State to report annually on the conditions in prisons and other detention facilities in at least 30 countries receiving United States assistance or under sanction by the United States, selected by the Secretary's determination that such conditions raise the most serious human rights or humanitarian concerns.

Fourth, it encourages the Secretary and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development to furnish assistance for the purpose of eliminating inhumane conditions where such assistance would be appropriate and beneficial.

For countries that are not making significant efforts to eliminate such conditions, the Secretary is to enter into consultations with their government to achieve the purposes of the Act.

The legislation also provides for training of Foreign Service Officers, and directs the Secretary to designate, within the Department of State's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, an official with responsibility for implementing the provisions of the Act.

Finally, it authorizes the expenditure of funds to implement the Act.

Once enacted, the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2013 will help foreign governments ensure that prisoners in their countries are treated as any people deprived of their freedom should be--as human beings, with dignity, in safety, and provided the basic necessities of life.

In countries around the world, the United States is helping to reform justice systems and strengthen the rule of law. No justice system can claim to deliver justice if prisoners and other detainees are treated like animals, or worse. By helping to change attitudes, and showing how with relatively little money prison conditions can be significantly improved, we can help advance the cause of justice more broadly.

Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a defender of justice. This legislation will further that goal and it reflects the best instincts of the American people. It has been endorsed by a wide range of groups, including Amnesty International, USA; Baptist World Alliance, Division of Freedom and Justice; Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Human Rights First; Human Rights Watch; International CURE; International Justice Mission; International Prison Chaplains' Association; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Just Detention International; Justice Fellowship/Prison Fellowship Ministries; National Association of Evangelicals; National Religious Campaign Against Torture; New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good; Open Society Policy Center; Penal Reform International; Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I want to thank these groups for their support and their efforts to focus attention on this urgent problem.

Identical legislation is planned for reintroduction in the House by Representative Chris Smith who cares deeply about this issue, so this is a bipartisan, bicameral effort.

Finally, I want to thank Senator Inhofe, who has visited many African countries and has witnessed the problems this legislation seeks to address, as well as his staff, who have been very helpful throughout this process. At a time when some people seem to get satisfaction from calling Washington broken, this is another example of how two Senators, of different parties, whose political views often differ, can work together in furtherance of a just cause.


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