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Abu Ghraib and other prisons around the world

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Friday, 11 June 2004

With the political elite of the Western World wringing their hands over the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, it is good time to look at the treatment of prisoners almost everywhere else.

Considerable material has been published about life behind bars from the prisoner’s point of view and, although some of it is dated, there is little doubt that those concerned over the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, or of the treatment of detainees in Australia, have much to be concerned about elsewhere in the world.

All of the people mentioned below, who have written about their experiences, were convicted of very serious crimes and admit their guilt.


*Bang Kwang prison in Bangkok, Thailand. Convicted heroin trafficker Warren Fellows spent 12 years up to 1990 in this jail which, to believe his published account (The Damage Done) is several kinds of hell. There are no facilities such as a proper exercise yard or sporting facilities, or anything else except bare cells. Brutal beatings are common. Corruption is endemic and the only way to survive without going crazy or ending it all is to stay on heroin, which can be bought from the guards, if you are lucky enough to have money.  

*Thomas McFadden, a black Englishman, spent several years recently in the minimum security jail San Pedro, in La Paz, Bolivia, which is a strange place indeed. His account, written by a youthful Australian lawyer, Rusty Young (Marching Powder) states that the jail has developed into a criminally-inclined, self-governing mini-economy. McFadden was thrown into the jail after being justly convicted of cocaine smuggling (he was double-crossed by a police colonel he bribed), and from there on was expected to make his own way. The authorities do not bother to provide food or make even the simplest of repairs to the jail, and the guards rarely bother to go into the jail itself. They turn a blind eye to illegal activities, provided they get their share of the profits.

As prisoners have to feed both themselves and, often, their families who may live with them in the jail (there is no place else for them to go), they add to the flourishing cocaine trade by operating workshops to cut the drug and grow marijuana on the rooftops. More constructively, they run small restaurants and shops in the jail and, astoundingly, buy and sell their own cells as real estate. A stamp duty is imposed on those transactions by a sort-of government for each section of the prison and the money raised is used for repairs. McFadden survived in part by running backpacker tours through the jail. (The Lonely Planets Guide for the area notes the jail tour.) The guards had no problem with the tours, and the backpackers partying on with coke in McFadden’s cell, provided they were paid off.

McFadden may well have been lucky he ended up in San Pedro. As he indicates in the book, the regular Bolivian prisons are no joke.

*Perpignan prison in France. Frank W. Abagnale, an American con artist who specialised in phoney checks spent six months in that prison in the late 1960s. It is by far the worst prison I have heard or read about outside of medieval times. Abagnale was thrown, naked, into a cell in which he could not lie down or stand up and kept in total darkness. He was not let out of that cell until he was released. He had no means of grooming or cleaning himself, and was not even given a plate on which to eat the small amounts of food dumped just inside his door at irregular intervals. The sole amenity was a bucket which was not emptied very often. In amusing contrast he was released by the French to the Swedish authorities, who put him in a cell akin to a hotel room while apologising for their “harsh” treatment. The book he wrote Catch me if you can, was recently turned into a film staring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, as Abagnale.

*Australian prisons in the 1970s and 1980s. Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the notorious gang enforcer now making a living doing shows as a "hard man" along with Mark Jackson and Roger Rogerson, does not have much to say about prison conditions but he has a lot to say about prison violence, because he instigated a great deal of it. At least that’s what it says in Chopper From the Inside (Floradale Productions, 1991). He also decries the "limp wristed" attitude of modern prison governors towards violence in jail. There is a picture of him in the front of the book, standing at his cell door in a track suit. The cell looks grim but Pentridge (where I assume the picture was taken) was closed down several years ago.
From that brief and far from scientific survey, it would seem that French prisons are by far the worst. Abagnale was writing about prisons of 40 years ago, of course, but a check of the Internet indicates that conditions in many of the French correctional facilities would still make the old Pentridge seem like a four star hotel. In 2000 a book written by Dr Veronique Vasseur, who worked as head physician in Sante prison for several years, entitled Medecin-chef a la Prison de la Sante caused uproar in France. Besides revelations about widespread prison violence and drug trafficking involving the guards, Dr Vasseur’s book claimed that cells were infested with rates and mice and mattresses teemed with lice and insects. The French government declared an inquest but I cannot find any reference to a result. There have also been recent articles on prison conditions in French newspapers.


What does this mean for the furore over prisons conditions in Iraq? I will let the readers work that one out for themselves.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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