Hernán Reyes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Negotiating Prisoners' Rights: Conversation with Hernan Reyes, Medical Coordinator for Detention-Related Activities, International Committee of the Red Cross; 12/2/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Preconditions for Prison Visits

You've negotiated your presence, you've set some rules (you and the Red Cross); your teams will not come to the prison unless the authorities have met several conditions. What are those conditions?

The conditions are that we should be allowed to see all places of detention and all prisoners. We have to be allowed to talk to them in private, in a place of our choosing with our own interpreters, not with their interpreters, not in the director's office. We have to be allowed to repeat the visit when we feel necessary, not two years later, not necessarily two months later, maybe two weeks later, maybe six months later, depending on need. And the fourth condition which is actually part of the third condition is we have to be allowed to register their identities, because we repeat the visit to people, not to places. If we see three people you don't necessarily have to identify, you can recognize them, but if you see three hundred people you have to know who they are to be able to see the prisoners who you felt were putting themselves in danger to make sure their were no reprisals. If someone is no longer there, you want to know who is that person. If he's been transferred to a different jail, we want to go see him, find out what happened, make sure he hasn't been executed outside. So those are the four conditions we insist on having, otherwise we don't go in.

So when you come to these places it's almost like a maze, because you have to understand the geography of the prison, know where you are going, where you've been, where the cells are, where the prisoners eat, right?

Absolutely, and it can be quite difficult in some cases. Some prisons are very big, some prisons are very complicated, not only in architecture but also in the different groups that are inside the prisons. Different ethnic groups, different hierarchies, different groups of prisoners; the coercion may not necessarily come only from the authorities, but also from inside, from prisoners amongst themselves. And to understand a prison is difficult. You don't understand, even on a first visit, even if you're thorough. Sometimes it's only on the second, possibly even the third visit, that you begin to really understand, and that's why continuity is so important. Continuity meaning visiting regularly and also having some continuity in the people. If you send a new team each time you're going to lose information and you're going to miss things.

Although your primary goal is to secure the personal dignity and the human rights of the prisoner, you actually have to not only win the respect of the prisoners, have them tell you their stories, but you have to maintain the respect of the prison authorities.

Yes, that's why we always work in transparency. We explain to the authorities why we are there. We have a clause of confidentiality, which means we don't go out and denounce what we see, which is our way of working. It wouldn't make any sense for us to go into a prison and to publish a report which gets us out of the prison immediately. There are many other organizations that do a very remarkable job of reporting and they're in the business of publishing and making known to the world what is going on. They don't need one other organization doing the same thing; it's a question of complementarity. They do the publishing, they do the footwork to know what is going on in a country, and we actually go into the prisons, we work on a confidential basis with the government, and we don't publish, but we visit the people, not only the VIPs but also the little guy in the back that nobody may know about. This way of working allows us to go back in. Just because we work on a confidential basis doesn't mean we don't say anything. We do the lobbying within the country at all levels to try to get betterment in all conditions.

So if you find outrageous conditions in a prison in a particular cell block, your mandate as you see it is to report it to the prison authorities on the one hand, but on the other hand to report it to other parts of the government to see if the situation can be ameliorated through these outside pressures?

Absolutely. It's very rare that a government is so monolithic that nothing can change without one person changing it. Usually you have several ministries, you have the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who may be getting a rough time at the UN because of alleged violations and who has an interest in having the Red Cross visit, and also may have an interest in getting betterment of conditions. We try not to play one ministry against the other, but try to use all these factors so that improvements are indeed made, and that's the way it works. It's not just the prison authorities, it's the ministerial level, even presidential level in some cases.

Even friendly countries that provide aid to the country that is the home for the prison your visiting?

Oh, yes. For example, we visited for years now in Northern Ireland, and of course the British Red Cross and the UK in general is one of the providers of staff and also funding for the Red Cross, but we have definitely visited the prisons there because there arguably are troubles going on in Northern Ireland. And actually we should say this, it has been very useful to be able to say at least in the past, now it's a bit different with the end of the Cold War, in the past it was very useful to be able to tell countries that we're not visiting only in these Third World countries, we are also visiting in Europe: in Spain, in the UK, and in Poland.

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