If we put the case law turning point of the 2000s in a historical perspective we must place these developments as part of a movement of reform that came about at the same time as prisons emerged as a form of punishment. In other words, the recognition of detainee rights must be seen as part of a continuous succession of attempts to humanise prisons, which always fail but are nevertheless renewed, and which have strengthened the institution by allowing it to demonstrate certain improvements. Beyond the purely legal and/or institutional factors, the circumspection regarding the potential to transform prison law may have weighted on the long awaited creation of European penitentiary law. Indeed, in a very clear difference from the USA, where the cause of detainees was massively brought into the legal field from the 1960s, the tendency to bring the struggles before the courts is a recent phenomenon on the old continent, particularly at the level of the ECHR. Therefore, until recently the bodies of the Convention have not been faced with a powerful and coordinated movement in favour of prisoners’ rights.
Although questioning the significance of recognising rights for detainees has largely lost some of its relevance in the academic and legal fields, it sheds light on the challenges faced by judges who are called on to safeguard the “non-theoretical or illusory but actual and concrete” rights of those behind bars.
To report on the level of the debates on the matter at the start of this century, the floor is open to different participants who contributed, at an academic or militant level: the criminologist Dan Kaminski, who hosted an international seminar on the phenomenon of acknowledging detainee rights at the time, lawyer Hugues de Suremain who began the strategic litigation in penal matters in France, and the historian Jean Bérard who observed and analysed the penal and penitentiary policies for the Dedans-Dehors review before presenting his thesis on social movements regarding the penal system (1968-1983).