Prisoners awaiting trial: use and abuse of preventive detention in Europe

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Spain

Publishing organisation: Civio, El Confidencial, DW, Eurologus, Divergente, VoxEurop

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-05-10

Language: Spanish, English

Authors: EVA BELMONTE, CARMEN TORRECILLAS, MARÍA ÁLVAREZ DEL VAYO, DAVID CABO and MIGUEL ÁNGEL GAVILANES from Civio. From El Confidencial, Spain: MARÍA ZUIL; from DW, Germany: KIRA SCHACHT; from Eurologus, Hungary: LÁSZLÓ ARATÓ; from Divergente, Portugal: BEATRIZ WALVIESSE; from VoxEurop, Belgium: ADRIÁN BURTIN; English editing: LUCAS LAURSEN


This investigation was led by Civio with the collaboration of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJnet), which is a network of independent media organisations and data newsrooms producing and promoting data-driven coverage of European topics in several languages.

Project description:

Pre-trial detention is an exceptional and temporary measure according to the law, yet in this investigation, we discovered that its use has increased in recent years in Europe. In Civio, along with partners from all over Europe, we have spoken with experts who consider the use of preventive detention to be abusive -sometimes discriminatory-, and we tell you stories of people who have suffered it. Also, we investigated the consequences: suicides in this situation are much higher than in people already convicted; and compensations, when pre-trial prisoners proved innocent, are still unruled.

Impact reached:

Almost 100,000 prisoners in Europe have something in common: they are locked up without a final sentence. Despite its profound consequences, the use of preventive detention is very high: one in five prisoners in European prisons are held under this measure. Civio has collected data, testimonies and cases from the 27 countries of the European Union in a cross-border investigation with the European Data Journalism Network into the use (and abuse) of this exceptional measure, which is often forgotten and little discussed due to populism.

Born in Peru, Viviana Verástegui has had Spanish nationality for nine years and a stable job when incarcerated. The risk of flight is one of the reasons for ordering pretrial detention; showing rootedness in the country can, in theory, avoid pretrial jail. Viviana Verástegui spent 11 months in prison until she was liberated. The investigation demonstrates that discrimination is key in these cases.

This in-depth investigation also reveals how the harshness of this measure triggers the probability of suicide. Being in pretrial detention, in fact, is one of the main risk factors for a person to take their own life in prison. But, what if the prisoner in pretrial detention ends up being innocent? The government must compensate, but the questions about how much freedom is worth is still unanswered. We delve into these and other questions through sentences, official documents, investigators, specialists, affected people, lawyers and data collected for the first time.

This three part investigation uses data, visualizations, testimonies and documents to narrate the issue. The articles have been translated into Italian, English, German, French, Portuguese, Polish and Arabic and have also been published in several outlets, such as Deutsche Welle (Germany), Vox Europe (Europe), El Confidencial (Spain), or Divergente (Portugal), among others.

Techniques/technologies used:

This cross-border investigation, composed of three articles, led by Civio as part of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNET) has drawn on journalists in nine countries. For the main data of people in pre-trial detention in the 27 countries of the European Union, we extracted the data from Tables 8 and 24 of the SPACE I 2021 report produced by the Council of Europe. With the same source, we could calculate the suicide rates per 10,000 inmates by using the total number of inmates, the number in preventive detention and the number of suicides among pretrial and general inmates. For context, we add also the national suicide rate, sourced from Eurostat. For this purpose, we used basic data extraction and analysis tools. We also created a data visualization of the percentage of prisoners in pretrial detention in 2021 and the suicides ratesusing Observable and D3.js.

However, collaborative journalism in this investigation was key. Being able to interview and gather experiences from several countries allowed us to understand the real impact of pre-trial detention in those who suffer it. To work together in such a way we had to have monthly meetings, share documents and interviews and help each other in gathering local data and stories. Also, having the same methodology of work has been very important to trust the process.

Context about the project:

Pre-trial detentions is not a topic often discussed due to populism. Talking about prisoner’s rights is not something that will get you votes. However, we feel the need to introduce the issue in the public debate. We investigated about the suicide rate of people in this situation, the discrimination in the decision making and the consequences of being in jail while being innocent. Even when proven innocent, people often find themselves without compensation from the administration or fighting for one. These are serious questions that we believe should be raised, and hope this investigation helps doing it.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

To work by yourself is not always the best way to report on an issue, especially when talking about the European Union. It is complicated to organize a cross-border, collaborative investigation, but it is completely worth it. In this kind of collaboration it is very important to share a common methodology on how to work with data, documents and interviewers. We, as Civio, have reached people and experts that we couldn’t dream about thanks to this type of collaboration and the European Data Journalism Network. Also, we have the opportunity to get to readers in other languages we couldn’t have reached on our own.

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