Open Prisons: A Modern Form of Penalty

In the past decade or so, many reports emerged on the poor situation of prisons in Bahrain, which resulted in calls from the international human rights community to improve its prison conditions and stop ill-treatment; especially of those prisoners who were subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention and unfair trials for their anti-government stances. It is worth mentioning here that Bahrain in the last decade or so have arrested nearly 15 thousand persons for their political views. It had become the first Arab country with the highest number of prisoners in the last years based on a report published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, with a number of its prisoners reaching at one time about 4500 political prisoners living in unhumanitarian conditions.

On one hand, a large number of prisoners are placed in correctional institutions that do not meet the minimum standard rules for the treatment of prisoners, and where an environment for torture and ill-treatment to extract confessions is manifested. On the other hand, these prisons represent a symbol of repression and a tool of persecution used to silence voices differing from the government’s official opinion.

Since 2011, the file of prisoners in Bahrain has become one of the most important files that local and international human rights organizations continue to point at; yet neglect is widespread in terms of providing adequate medical care. Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) has a list of prisoners whose health has deteriorated in the past years due to this issue.

Our archive and that of our partners contains files and testimonies of prisoners who were victims of severe physical and psychological torture and are still suffering from subsequent health effects. We have recorded cases of deaths inside prisons as a result to systematic neglect, delay, interruptions, intentional mistreatment or/and deprivation of adequate care for both detainees in detention centers and prisoners in the central prison. No legal action or a proper investigation took place by the authorities to stand upon the actual cause of deaths.

For example, in November 2015, Bahrain’s main prison, the “Center for Correction and Rehabilitation in Jau” (known as the Jau Central Prison), housed approximately 2,500 officially registered prisoners, with the presence of only two medical professionals, one for each shift.

Yet, positive steps were seen taken on 2nd July, 2017, approving a draft law on penalties and alternative measures, which allows the judge to serve or order an alternative punishment in lieu of the original punishment, in the form of work in community service, house arrest in a specific place, prohibiting going to a specific place or places, undertaking not to be exposed to or contact with certain persons or entities, to be subjected to electronic surveillance, to attend rehabilitation and training programs, and/or to repair damage caused by the crime.

In 2017 and after a royal decree, Bahrain embarked on the alternative penal code and in January of this year, the Public Prosecution tweeted that 3741 prisoners have benefited from the alternative penalties most of whom have already served ¾ of their sentences. We have found that around 700 of them were political prisoners, making them only 18% beneficiaries of this law.

Bahrain has also recently announced a “set of measures to expand the scope of alternative sentencing in parallel with the start of the implementation of the Open Prisons Program, in a direction aimed at reducing overcrowding inside prisons”.

The Crown Prince of Bahrain called for the implementation of the open prisons program in the coming months, stressing that these programs come in the context of continuing to develop the legislative system, which supports the development process in the country he envisages.

The measures come a few months after King Hamad bin Isa issued a decree to implement the Alternative Penal Code and drop the requirement to serve half the term. This decree included oppositionists and political activists, yet with certain level of discrimination monitored when applying the alternative penalties on this category of prisoners.

Open prison system or program, and like the name suggests; means that prisoners are not locked up in a classic jail setting but in settings where they are not often locked up in their cells and are allowed to work inside the prison or outside to earn a living, attend workshops, schooling, allowed to call freely and visit family. Some even got some hours outside the facility.

It is true that every person who commits a crime is deemed to punishment, but this does not mean that they have to repay it with their life. Thus, they should be given second chance. The concept of open prisons was first developed in the UK in the 1930’s and was based on the idea of “carrots” rather than “sticks”.

Open prisons were developed to rehabilitate prisoners who had almost completed their sentence. Earlier, imprisonment was a simple form of penalty but now the system of minimum security in the open prison is considered modern form of penalty. The subject of open prison was firstly discussed in the first United Nation Congress on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders held in Geneva in 1955.

Advantages of open prison systems are:

  • Reduction of the overcrowding of prisons which causes all types of neglect, ill-treatment and sufferings, impeding the process of re-education and reform of prisoners.
  • Making Bahraini criminal legislators use less excessive punitive measures, be less repressive and less deterrent, but rather preventive.
  • Eliminating serious complications of freedom deprivation penalties, as they are one of the factors that negatively contribute to the criminals’ return to crime.
  • Achieving less operational costs of running traditional prisons.

Based on all of the above, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) calls on the Bahraini government and its authorities concerned with prisoners’ affairs such as the Prisoners & Detainees’ Rights Commission to:

  • Effectively replace prison sentences with alternative penalties and open prison systems and expand in its implementation to include everyone with no discrimination.
  • Adhere to the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, especially those relating to treatment and medical services.
  • Ensure respect for the rights of prisoners.
  • Allow local and international committees to visit prisons and monitor their affairs.
  • Release prisoners who have been imprisoned for their political opinions or for expressing their differing views.