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Overcrowding: Nobody's fault? When some struggle to survive waiting for everyone to take responsibility

  • Vincent Ballon

Visiting an overcrowded prison is a journey into the private life of each person deprived of his or her freedom, into the community of the detainees and of the staff working in such a place. Using the senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch, combined with empathy and time for observation, helps ICRC delegates to explore vulnerabilities, discover how detainees and staff cope, and grasp the intricate complexity of such a prison system. Beyond what is left of human dignity in these places of detention, when coping mechanisms become survival mechanisms, the suffering shows that overcrowding is wrong. It follows that if overcrowding is “nobody's fault”, it is the responsibility of every individual and every institution of the criminal justice system to create solutions.

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1 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, trans. Cole, G. D. H., J. M. Dent & Sons and Dutton, E. P., London, Toronto and New York, 1782, p. 5.

2 Definition: (number of detainees present at date “t”/ideal capacity) × 100.

3 The term “prison” is used here as a generic term covering a large range of places of detention.

4 For more information, see Aeshlimann, Alain, “Protection of Detainees: ICRC Action Behind Bars”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 87, No. 857, 2005 , available at: (all internet references were accessed in October 2017).

5 On the modalities of ICRC visits in places of detention, see ibid.

6 Bouvier, Paul, “Humanitarian Care and Small Things in Dehumanized Places”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94, No. 888, 2012 , available at:

7 “Community” is understood here as the overall group of people that have access to the jail: inmates, staff, authorized visitors, service providers such as the few local non-governmental organizations, and representatives of religious groups.

8 Raymund E. Narag, Freedom and Death Inside the Jail: A Look into the Condition of the Quezon City Jail, ed. Rod P. Fajardo III, Supreme Court of the Philippines and United Nations Development Program, Manila, 21 January 2005.

9 Translation of “l’économie du châtiment”, from Foucaud, Michel, Surveiller et punir, Gallimard, Paris, 1975 .

10 See above note 9.

11 Penal Reform International, Global Prison Trends 2016, London, 2016 .

12 Daccord, Yves, in United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and ICRC, Handbook on Strategies to Reduce Overcrowding in Prisons, UNODC Criminal Justice Handbook Series, Vienna, 2013, p. iv.

13 Author's translation. See “Robert Badinter: ‘Justice, que d'injustices commises en ton nom!’”, Le Temps, 17 August 2012, available at:

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International Review of the Red Cross
  • ISSN: 1816-3831
  • EISSN: 1607-5889
  • URL: /core/journals/international-review-of-the-red-cross
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