Ten years ago a handful of legal practitioners came together under the somewhat off-putting banner of the European Prison Litigation Network to create a structure that would bring together advocates for detainees’ rights in European countries. Initially, it was intended to offer a voice to detainees and the organisations that defend their rights in the bodies that dictate penitentiary standards. Until then, these processes were very broadly under the aegis of national penitentiary authorities. It was also a matter of allowing lawyers to grasp the opportunities presented by the increasing power of the right to an effective remedy in European case law regarding prisons, whilst working so that such a procedural strategy did not mean renouncing from directly attacking the basis of the issue of imprisonment (namely the primacy of the disciplinary and security aspects) and penal policies (the focus on imprisonment and the duration of the sentences imposed).
Now is a time for celebrating the fact that we can all be together. It is ten years since Daniel, a former detainee, donated five hundred euros to finance the translation of the discussions that were necessary for the collective drafting of the organisation’s founding texts. This first drive, with the essential backing of the University of Florence, made it possible to obtain financial support from the European Commission for the principle of establishing such a network in 2013. Ten years later, it brings together 28 organisations from 19 European States, and has a secretariat with permanent employees.
Today, EPLN is a place where former detainees, campaigning associations, academics, lawyers and prison doctors can meet to discuss, learn from each other and draw strength to continue their struggles. Beyond the great disparities between the European prison services, the diversity of the militant cultures and the variety of the political regimes, the members of the network share the same belief that prison is damaging for individuals and a source of arbitrariness. As such, it calls for activism from civil society. Depriving people of their privacy, the possibility of making their own choices and negating collective action constitute attacks on democracy that call for a fight for emancipation. Although detainees do not suffer from the same level of violence across the whole continent, and the fight against torture must prevail, militants in so-called “progressive” systems also need to transfer essential knowledge about the current changes in prisons, and the pernicious developments that can sometimes occur under claims of improving conditions.
However, these discussions only gain their full meaning when they result in collective action: talk about prison from people in the outside world is only legitimate if it has the capacity to protect those who are behind bars. From the outset, this action was built in regular dialogue with academia. In this way, the organisation has strived to hold together the two threads of its mandate, between refusing to leave those who are victims of the arbitrary nature of incarceration and a role of vigilance regarding reforms that are often void and ineffective, or even sometimes make the arbitrariness of prison appear more acceptable.
In this regard, it has ceaselessly questioned the capacity for European case law to correct the systematic problems in prisons on the continent. Beyond the transversal question of access to justice, the organisation has made an effort, through the commitment of its members and its employees, to focus its action on the prison problems that seem to be the most crucial: the causes of violence behind bars, which in some places involves the routine use of deliberate violence, or even torture; long prison sentences and the deadly detention regimes that go along with them, which break the personality of those who are condemned to them; the often mediocre health care provided, which is frequently due to the subordination of the medical corps to the managerial and security requirements of prison authorities. Leading decisions on priority issues have already been obtained from the European Court, which represents just one of the stages in fighting for the rights in question to be respected in practice.
To ensure the pertinence of its action EPLN has strived to make a horizontal approach its trademark, according to a peer-to-peer principle: governing bodies constituted of national organisations, members of the secretariat who are greatly involved in the actions taken in the field every day by the member organisations. Moreover, insofar as the acknowledged rights only have an emancipatory effect if their beneficiaries partake in their formulation and if they actually grasp them, the organisation has made involving former detainees in its governing bodies and its regular activity a statutory requirement.
EPLN is a place for dialogue and collective action that has also been designed as a tool to develop national organisations, whether in terms of their funding, their access to European organisations and United Nations agencies for those with limited international reac and, for the more recent, for their internal architecture. Because they are in the front line of a war where the principles of our daily combats are at stake, EPLN was naturally involved, from the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to allow its Ukrainian members to continue to operate. In other places, colleagues who faced oppression have also been supported by the organisation.
This tenth anniversary is not just about taking a satisfied look at the past, it is an opportunity to develop this specific format of cooperation. In this regard, the challenge for EPLN is doubtlessly to take on the contemporary issues regarding detainees’ rights, whilst remaining faithful to its previous priorities, which are sadly still applicable in many countries.
The war in Ukraine urgently calls for a better coordination of the response to issues of humanitarian law and international human rights. The prison aspect is doubtlessly more pertinent to the war in Ukraine than to any other international armed conflict, whether in terms of the mobilisation of prisoners in the ranks of the private Russian mercenary companies, the insertion of prisons in the filtration system in the occupied territories, and also the role of prisons in acclimatising a whole society to institutional violence.
On a whole different issue, the spread of artificial intelligence to reduce risks and more generally the rapid spread of technology in prisons threatens to infringe the rights of detainees. International forums, generally hosted by regional organisations contribute greatly to the silent circulation of new modes of managing prisons between national penitentiary authorities. Therefore the response also needs to be prepared and deployed at a continental level alongside national actions.