In July 2018, Justice Hub was able to make a rare visit to the place the International Criminal Court keeps its detainees while they are going through a trial and awaiting a sentence or a transfer.
People refer to it as a prison, but, as you’ll see, that isn’t entirely accurate.
The building is not far from the court, and is often the subject of intense curiosity, and even sometimes demonstrations outside, from noisy supporters of the senior politicians or military who have been accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. To try to dispel some of the myths, here are some of the facts.
1. It is a prison within a prison. The main building is Dutch – a full functioning prison, with a long history – and within that, with its own rules and regulations, is the unit with international prisoners. In the past, mainly prisoners from the former Yugoslavia, on trial at the United Nations Yugoslav Tribunal, were housed there. But now, the ICC has a whole floor available for detainees.
2. But actually, it’s a detention unit, not a prison. And it has a Chief Custody Officer – Paddy Craig – not a governor. He says his job is to provide a “safe, secure and humane” environment but to remember “everyone is innocent until proven guilty”.
3. The largest number the detention unit has ever held is 14. That would have been when there were several cases going on. There was a lot of coordination needed with defence teams, remembers Craig. But now there are just 6 detainees, including one from Mali – Al Faqi Al Mahdi – who’s already pled guilty, been sentenced and will be moved to another prison. But, “if I need more space I can have more” says Craig.
4. The prisoners can earn money. If they take part in things like cleaning the communal areas like the kitchen, they can use the money they earn to send back to their families or to buy food from outside – there’s a special ‘African shop’ with a long list of potential ingredients like cassava flour. “They tend to eat and cook together” says Craig but, “some cooks are better than others”.
5. Sometimes guards take part alongside the prisoners in five-a-side football. This is during the regular time that the prisoners from the former Yugoslavia and those from the ICC get together in the sports hall. Craig says, “it’s a bit of normalcy and a bit of fun”. There’s also a tennis court outside, a gym with equipment and access to instructors. The medical care they have in-house is basic, but if they need specialist treatment it can be provided, on the same basis “equivalent care” outside the prison.
6. It’s not like a luxury hotel. Unless the kind of hotels you are used to have narrow beds, tiny mirrors, views of prison yards, keep you locked in overnight from 20.30 and two hours per day while the staff are eating. Plus, you can’t leave.
7. The 34 staff are multilingual. Five are administrators and 29 man the prison shifts. When Paddy Craig is looking for new prison staff – they are seconded from Dutch prison service – he looks for language skills and “enhanced skill sets” like social work experience. They all do intercultural training every year to counter what he describes as “the biggest threat” – that of “complacency”.
8. The prisoners have computers. But they don’t connect to the internet, or Skype, just via a VPN, to their defence team lawyers. And they get 200 minutes free phone time per month to a strict set of numbers (apart from their lawyers), put through to their rooms by the prison staff. The calls are recorded and are destroyed at the end of proceedings. They aren’t listened to unless the court orders it. There’s a TV in the communal room which gets international channels via satellite.
9. Yes, there’s a conjugal room. It’s where in privacy prisoners can meet their wives within visiting hours. There’s no restriction on numbers of family visits but it can be expensive for the families, so there’s a separate Trust Fund for family visits, to help. And visits have to be planned to fit in with the needs of all prisoners, the visits of defence lawyers, etc.
10. So, what’s the difference between the ICC detention unit and a ‘normal prison’? “Ours is more relaxed” says Craig, meaning that it’s a “smaller regime”, so less distance between him and the prisoners. But, he cautions, “there are a lot of false impressions about the place”. And he’s clear: “I have a mandate, I have to run it according to international standards and that’s what I do”.
Justice Hub was not allowed to take photos or record video inside the facility. The photos from the outside are Justice Hub/Janet Anderson. And those inside are from the ICC ©ICC-CPI