Law in Popular Culture

Is being 'Locked Up Abroad' any worse than being locked up at home?

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At the beginning of this year, I wrote a column about the National Geographic channel series Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller. The column focused on fentanyl, known by some as “the most dangerous drug in America.”

In that article, I mentioned my affinity for the National Geographic channel’s programming. Specifically, I referred to Locked Up Abroad as one of my favorite entries in television’s general “crime” genre. I reflected on the fact that I have yet to cover that series in the four or so years I’ve been writing this column. Spoiler alert: That’s about to change.

I once ran into a situation with a prospective client who was arrested in another country on criminal complaints. His family was wondering what, if anything, they could do to get him back to the United States. After counseling them and stepping back to reflect on the situation, my mind immediately focused on the horror stories I’ve seen regarding other countries’ criminal “justice” systems and their prisons. Enter Locked Up Abroad … or Banged Up Abroad, as others might know it.

‘Banged Up Abroad’

Banged Up Abroad initially aired in the United Kingdom in March 2006 and is still in syndication. The series was rebranded as Locked up Abroad for the U.S. audience, and it appears that National Geographic also runs the program in parts of Asia, Europe and India. I could not find a definitive answer as to when the Locked Up Abroad first began airing in the U.S. (all signs point to 2008), but I know I’ve been watching it for quite some time.

Almost every episode follows the same formula: An individual is approached with an offer too good to be true, they agree (or often are forced) to smuggle drugs to repay the debt they’ve incurred, and then they’re caught red-handed in another country, arrested and imprisoned.

Someone who has yet to watch an episode might think that format would grow old and repetitive, but somehow it doesn’t. A large part is owed to the storytelling involved: The audience hears the troubling tale straight from the arrestee’s mouth. This firsthand narration—along with recounts from other players such as the officers involved in the arrest or undercover agents who set up the sting—lends quite a bit of variety to each segment.

Moreover, a select few episodes portray overseas incarceration stories that have become well-known throughout other pop culture avenues. One such example from Banged Up Abroad is the chronicles of Billy Hayes, who was convicted and incarcerated in a Turkish prison for smuggling hashish. Most people unfamiliar with his name will at least recognize the book he wrote about his experience, which in turn became the Academy Award-winning 1978 film Midnight Express.

Typically, when I review a series with multiple seasons, my first stop is an aggregator such as Episode Ninja, where I can locate the highest-rated installment and view that as an example of the series overall. I wasn’t able to find Locked Up Abroad listed. To be fair, I did locate Banged Up Abroad, but the top-rated episode was from its ninth season, and I couldn’t find a trusted site to stream it. Consequently, I figured I would take a different approach this time around.

National_Geographic_Logo_2016 Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

‘What about extradition?’

As I mentioned earlier, the idea for this article stemmed from a family contacting me about “extraditing” their loved one back to the United States in hopes that he would be allowed him to serve his prison sentence in his country of citizenship. Sadly, that’s just not how the process works; in fact, it’s actually the inverse.

Extradition occurs when one jurisdiction requests that another sovereign surrender an individual to the requesting jurisdiction so that the person may face charges for crimes committed there. In this sense, the family that contacted me had it backward: You don’t get extradited from the place you committed the crime to somewhere else; you get extradited from somewhere else back to the place where the offense occurred.

But extradition will not be agreed to by every country. Extradition almost only occurs when both jurisdictions are parties to a treaty that allows such. Therefore, it’s common for criminals to evade prosecution in one country by fleeing to another where there is no extradition treaty in place. For example, the United States has extradition treaties with more than 100 countries. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, it does not have agreements in place with “dozens of others, including China, Iran, North Korea and Russia as well as many African, Middle Eastern and formerly Soviet countries.”

Prison in another country

Although it may be hard to believe, individuals housed in U.S. prisons are guaranteed certain constitutional rights. While they are not guaranteed all of their constitutional rights while incarcerated, they are at least “assured” protection pursuant to the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment and its protection from cruel and unusual punishment are in theory intended to ensure, at a bare minimum, prisoners be afforded a minimum standard of living.

Nevertheless, as Locked Up Abroad reveals to be all too true, every country in the world does not endorse those same rights. Now, we do have the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules”). Still, those rules and principles are not legally binding and countries may or may not adopt or implement them at all.

Some facilities are much better than others. My research turned up plenty of lists for the “best prisons” in the world, and one common denominator seemed to be relative location. Almost all of the prisons to make the various lists on the web are found in European countries. Places such as Bastoy Prison and Halden Prison in Norway; HMP Addiewell in Scotland; Sollentuna Prison in Sweden; and Justice Centre Leoben in Austria are widely lauded for not only their relatively low number of prisoners per capita and per cell but also for the amenities and opportunities afforded to the individuals housed inside.

Nonetheless, the gamut of worldwide prison conditions can vary significantly from one locale to another. On the flip side, a brief examination of articles concerning the “worst prisons” in the world gives a good indication of the consensus view. Countries such as Venezuela (Sabaneta Prison/El Rodeo Prison), Thailand (Bwang Kwang Central Prison), North Korea (Camp 22), Russia (Petak Island Prison/Butyrka Prison) and Turkey (Diyabakir Prison) were consistently listed as having some of the most inhumane incarceration environments known to man. Most often, the criticisms cited examples of extreme overcrowding and a lack of access to clean, sanitary water.

Even more troubling, though, is the fact that the United States appeared on almost every list I viewed regarding the worst prisons in the world despite the Eighth Amendment and the Nelson Mandela Rules. Facilities such as Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York, USP Florence in Colorado and San Quentin State Prison in California demonstrate that one doesn’t have to be “locked up abroad” to experience dehumanizing, hellish incarceration.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

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