Priorities & Approach

Our thematic priorities

Access to Justice

The historical inertia of prison institutions reflects in the tendency of prison administrations to neutralise the effects of the recognition of rights of prisoners. Furthermore, prison reforms and legal developments as a whole may not coincide with the concerns of people in detention.

It is therefore essential that prisoners are able to use the law to assert their rights. If some detainees are at the origin of a consequent number of normative evolutions, the use of litigation is not within the reach of all and places prisoners in an often untenable confrontation with the administration. Some disputes are technical. It is therefore crucial that detainees have access to legal information in detention (first line legal aid) and access to experienced legal professionals (second line legal aid).   

EPLN priority aim is to address this crucial transversal concern as it conditions the transcription of any normative evolution into reality. It acts in particular through advocacy and litigation at promoting access to legal information, free access to court, free legal aid, but also at advocating for the protection from reprisals of detainees using remedy mechanisms. Finally EPLN acts at increasing the acknowledgement by institutions of the essential role played by national NGOs in providing legal assistance to detainees.

Right to health and access to health care in prison

Prisons carry a disproportionately high burden of disease, in particular infectious diseases (HIV, HCV and TB), mental health, and addictions and access to healthcare is one of the main concern of prisoners. Despite this reality, the prison system is unsuitable for the provision of care and treatment to ill prisoners for several reasons. First, the punitive culture of the prison institution hinders the introduction of comprehensive patient-centered approaches. In addition, the dependence of medical staff from the prison administration damages the therapeutic relationship and leads to poor quality of care. Also, structural problems such as overcrowding, delayed diagnosis, disconnection from the general health care system and inadequate healthcare services are leading to systemic violations of fundamental rights. Finally, mechanisms of release of prisoners on medical grounds are structurally deficient.

Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed prisoners to an exacerbation of these problems. In particular the reduction in the release of seriously ill people and discontinuity in care leads to a deterioration in the general health condition of the prison population, in particular of people who live with HIV, people who use drugs and TB patients, thus threatening to embolise prison healthcare systems.

Prisons are also receiving an increasing number of mentally ill people. Prevalence studies in many European countries show that 10–15% of the prison population suffer from severe and enduring mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, with unproper provision of care and referral to external psychiatric institutions.

Finally, psychiatry is increasingly called upon to intervene hand in hand with the criminal justice system, particularly with a view to neutralising the person, from a predictive perspective. Such an approach compromises the meaning of the intervention of doctors, at the risk of instrumentalisation.

EPLN aims at addressing these issues through promoting the alignment of care delivery and access to services in prison with those available in the community, promoting access to mechanisms of conditional release for prisoners with severe pathologies or patients in great dependence, and promoting a clear distinction in the missions of care and punishment and limit the psychiatricisation of prison.

Institutional factors of prison violence

Prison violence is increasingly addressed by human rights policies through risk assessment and measures to categorize the incarcerated population. These approaches both obscure institutional factors (extremely long sentences, security measures) and subordinate the benefit of rights to the condition of behaviors that conform to prison expectations. In so doing, prison empties the substance of rights that were often hard won in court. 

Considering the question of fundamental rights in prison independently from an analysis of criminal policies is likely to favor a purely theoretical approach to rights, detached from the question of the social functions of the prison, the fundamental question of the length of sentence and the sectors of the population sent to prison.

Furthermore, the development of human rights policies and the establishment of multiple preventive mechanisms cannot hide the fact that the practice of torture remains routine and that it is inconceivable to speak of rights policies where torture is rife. The establishment of preventive mechanisms is indispensable and must be encouraged. However, the fight against torture requires both the elimination of its structural causes, which stem from operating logics designed to ensure the complete subjugation of the prison population to the prison administration, and the fight against impunity of perpetrators of torture acts, through transparency and the carrying out of investigations to identify them. 


Our strategic approaches

Strengthening dialogue and cooperation between actors of prison litigation in Europe

The lack of comparative law studies and limited exchange between organisations in different countries contributes to the great disparity in the rights guaranteed to prisoners in Europe. Some states have experimented with certain legal regimes for decades without this being known in neighbouring countries, where the exercise of the corresponding rights is impossible or in its infancy.

The development of European case law on a given issue requires the establishment of the beginnings of a consensus between states. Comparative law is therefore necessary to advance the law.

Moreover, even among lawyers who are well versed in prison law, the case law of the ECtHR is little known, unless it concerns their own country. This lack of mobilisation of European law contributes to the inertia of national policies and the appearance of systemic problems that are difficult to resolve.

At another level, the fragmentation of the civil society field continues to be felt between human rights organisations and networks of former prisoners and communities. In a context of strong political adversity, synergies need to be found and partnerships forged for sustainable advocacy approaches.

Increasing and levering the influence of civil society actors at the European level on the course of normative developments in the penal and penitentiary field

The founders of EPLN created the network driven by the general consideration that civil society organisations are weakly represented at European level in the arenas where policies on prison issues are discussed and where soft law on prison issues is developed.

While national state authorities and prison administrations are well coordinated at the European level and play a key role in influiencing on the course of penal and penitentiary policies, the marginal place occupied by civil society leads to shortcomings or even blind spots in the instruments for protecting prisoners’ rights. The difficulties of applying the law specifically to the prison environment, which are partly linked to the authorities’ reluctance to allow external scrutiny of their actions, are not sufficiently taken into account.