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Humanitarian work in prisons: the experience of Médecins Sans Frontières
Jean-Marc Biquet

Humanitarian action by NGOs in detention centres is quite rare and poorly documented. Despite the fact that prisoners are among those who have the least access to quality health care services, MSF has never chosen to make detention centres one of its strategic priorities. The inherent difficulties linked to this operational context explain the limited number of projects the organisation has developed and managed in prisons.

Prisons are particularly secretive places. Living conditions are often deplorable, as is noted in the preface to a manual on the proper use of international penitential rules published by the NGO Penal Reform International: “[The UN] has a number of international rights techniques to protect and guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms in prisons. It should be noted that these principles are improperly applied in many (or even most) countries in the world“ [1].” However, humanitarian projects for inmates are rare and largely undocumented.

Although MSF does not intend to give special priority to prisons in any given context, there is also no reason to exclude prisons as a place of intervention. The status of inmates changes nothing. As with any other case, MSF will analyze the situation from medical and human perspectives. Though it has never been cited as one of the organization’s operational priorities, historically MSF has had many projects within prison systems. In each case, the decision to implement these projects has been based on a number of criteria.


[1] Making Standards Work: an international handbook on good prison practice” Penal Reform International, 2001. Available in French at: http://www.penalreform.org/publications/making-standards-work-international-handbook-good-prison-practice