The phenomenon of prison overcrowding continues to blight penitentiary systems across
Europe and seriously undermines attempts to improve conditions of detention. The negative effects
of prison overcrowding have already been highlighted in previous General Reports.1 As the CPT’s
field of operations has extended throughout the European continent, the Committee has encountered
huge incarceration rates and resultant severe prison overcrowding. The fact that a State locks up so
many of its citizens cannot be convincingly explained away by a high crime rate; the general
outlook of members of the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary must, in part, be responsible.
In such circumstances, throwing increasing amounts of money at the prison estate will not
offer a solution. Instead, current law and practice in relation to custody pending trial and sentencing
as well as the range of non-custodial sentences available need to be reviewed. This is precisely the
approach advocated in Committee of Ministers Recommendation N° R (99) 22 on prison
overcrowding and prison population inflation. The CPT very much hopes that the principles set out
in that important text will indeed be applied by member States; the implementation of this
Recommendation deserves to be closely monitored by the Council of Europe.
Large capacity dormitories
In a number of countries visited by the CPT, particularly in central and eastern Europe,
inmate accommodation often consists of large capacity dormitories which contain all or most of the
facilities used by prisoners on a daily basis, such as sleeping and living areas as well as sanitary
facilities. The CPT has objections to the very principle of such accommodation arrangements in
closed prisons and those objections are reinforced when, as is frequently the case, the dormitories in
question are found to hold prisoners under extremely cramped and insalubrious conditions. No
doubt, various factors - including those of a cultural nature - can make it preferable in certain
countries to provide multi-occupancy accommodation for prisoners rather than individual cells.
However, there is little to be said in favour of - and a lot to be said against - arrangements under
which tens of prisoners live and sleep together in the same dormitory.
Large-capacity dormitories inevitably imply a lack of privacy for prisoners in their everyday
lives. Moreover, the risk of intimidation and violence is high. Such accommodation arrangements
are prone to foster the development of offender subcultures and to facilitate the maintenance of the
cohesion of criminal organisations. They can also render proper staff control extremely difficult, if
not impossible; more specifically, in case of prison disturbances, outside interventions involving the
use of considerable force are difficult to avoid. With such accommodation, the appropriate
allocation of individual prisoners, based on a case by case risk and needs assessment, also becomes
an almost impossible exercise. All these problems are exacerbated when the numbers held go
beyond a reasonable occupancy level; further, in such a situation the excessive burden on
communal facilities such as washbasins or lavatories and the insufficient ventilation for so many
persons will often lead to deplorable conditions.
The CPT must nevertheless stress that moves away from large-capacity dormitories towards
smaller living units have to be accompanied by measures to ensure that prisoners spend a
reasonable part of the day engaged in purposeful activities of a varied nature outside their living
2nd General Report - CPT/Inf (92) 3, paragraph 46, and 7th General Report - CPT/Inf (97) 10, paragraphs 12-15.