For Incarcerated U.S. Citizens Overseas, Consular Affairs is There to Help

4 minutes read time
Assistant Secretary Risch listening to a prison official on recent trip to the Philippines

For Incarcerated U.S. Citizens Overseas, Consular Affairs is There to Help

More than 93 million U.S. citizens travel overseas each year. When U.S. citizens leave the United States to travel overseas, they are subject to the local laws of the countries they visit. Laws in foreign countries are often different from the laws in the United States and we see many U.S. citizens being arrested for alleged violations of local laws while overseas. When this happens, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and our consular professionals abroad immediately step into action to assist. But we can do more. By ensuring that traveling U.S. citizens have an understanding of the laws of the foreign countries they visit, we can help avoid unintended conflict or misunderstandings. This is why we urge U.S. citizens to educate themselves about each country they plan to visit, by reading our country information pages and other resources, to make sure they are familiar with any unusual laws or special circumstances they may encounter abroad. 

Consular Affairs is at the forefront of one of the central elements of the Department of State’s Professional Ethos. We protect the American people and promote their interests around the world, which includes providing assistance to U.S. citizens arrested abroad. Without passing judgment on what the citizen may have done, and without weighing in on the guilt or innocence of the citizen, consular officers are charged with monitoring the welfare of U.S. citizens as they pass through a foreign justice system, and with advocating for their needs, if necessary.   

On a daily basis, our consular officers posted at U.S. embassies and consulates overseas travel to visit U.S. citizens in prison and check on their welfare.  In the last year alone, we conducted more than 10,000 visits to U.S. citizens in prison. We can provide a list of local lawyers, explain the local justice process, and help prison officials address any specific needs of the person in custody.

Often, consular officers provide the only means for the incarcerated citizen to communicate with family, access medications, or fulfill dietary needs.

Our officers also work tirelessly to ensure U.S. citizens are treated fairly. We do not seek preferential treatment for U.S. citizens, but insist that our citizens are treated as well as a local citizen should be under local standards. While U.S. citizens are, ultimately, subject to the justice system of the country where they were arrested, consular officers are there to reassure those citizens they are not alone or forgotten. 

This work is a significant part of our broader diplomatic mission. We meet frequently with prison officials, as I did on my recent visit to the Philippines, to discuss judicial procedures and prison conditions. Our presence and interest in individual cases as well as general prison conditions reminds local officials the U.S. government is looking closely at how our citizens are treated. When a system breaks down, and we determine U.S. citizens are being abused or unjustly treated, we speak out on their behalf and file an official protest. That protest might be presented to the prison officials, to the ministries of justice or foreign affairs, or even directly to a foreign head of state.

This is some of the most important work we do, and while much of it occurs quietly behind the scenes, this is work - in which we as a team – and I personally – take great pride in. Wherever you are around the globe, and no matter the circumstances, I want the American people to know we are there to help.


Carl C. Risch

Contributor bio

Carl C. Risch is the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.