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Rehabilitation of Life and Long Term Prisoners

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I have recently returned from a conference in Singapore called “Unlocking the Second Prison” organised by the International Corrections and Prisons Association.  Participants from 70 countries discussed how to build a culture of rehabilitation and reintegration into prison systems- the second prison refers to the barriers in the community that face prisoners , particularly long term prisoners , when they have left the first prison. The event was held to coincide with Yellow Ribbon Day an annual campaign to promote a second chance for offenders when they leave prison.

There is a paradox here of course. Singapore is a death penalty country and has a very high rate of imprisonment, although it has fallen by a fifth in the last 5 years or so. And there is still caning .But alongside these violations of human rights there is a serious commitment to rehabilitation which is demonstrated at the level of individual prisons, the broader criminal justice system and even in  society as a whole.

Building a rehabilitative culture into prison has an important instrumental purpose for those who are going to be released. It is in everybody’s interest that prisoners return to the community with the attitudes and skills that will enable them to stay out of trouble in the future.
Even for those who are subject to natural life terms or life with no possibility of parole there is also an instrumental case for rehabilitation – things may change, cases may be commuted, or reviewed, pardons considered, amnesties granted.

But there is also a normative case.  Offering the chance for these life prisoners to reform is the right thing to do, to help to make their lives worth living and to make the conditions of captivity more bearable. As the German Federal Constitutional Court has put it   “prison institutions also have a duty in the case of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment, to strive towards their resocialization   to preserve their ability to cope with life and to counteract the negative effects of incarceration…” The ICCPR requires prisons to comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation. This requirement does not exclude the treatment of life or long term prisoners, even those who may spend their whole life locked up.

What does this mean in practice for prison systems?   What is needed is what in the English speaking world we call a  progressive system in which life and long term sentenced prisoners are given planned opportunities to qualify for increasingly less restrictive conditions and levels of security so that ideally  a life prisoner is released from Open Conditions . Most will serve the first part of their sentence in high security. But this should only be for as long as this is justified by the risk of and the potential consequences of escape.

Many countries have low security or open prisons to prepare prisoners for re-entry at the end of their sentence.   In Africa many will be farms where prisoners can learn agricultural skills and even take produce to market.   In Rwanda,   community service is used for the second part of long sentences,  served in camps where prisoners do unpaid work of community benefit and also have access to educational opportunities. Conventional classroom teaching takes place in many prisons while vocational training  can be particularly important in helping prisoners to obtain skills relevant to job opportunities on release.

Maintaining family contacts, where it is possible to do this, and providing treatment for specific conditions which may lie behind offending are also important tasks for the rehabilitative prison.   There is also a place for  restorative approaches which can bring home to offenders the human consequences of their actions and provide a positive experience for victims. But perhaps the biggest challenge is “normalisation” – providing experiences in long term custody which enable prisoners to live as normal a life in prison to prevent institutionalisation.

A rehabilitative culture should not be limited to prisons but must apply to the operation of the broader criminal justice system in which prisons play their part. As part of the Singapore Conference last week, we visited a Halfway house which prepares prisoners for release. But physical infrastructure is only part of the answer. Research on desistance from crime is increasingly showing the crucial importance of strong supportive relationships whether from professionals, family members or peers in helping offenders to change their lives around and to give up crime.

Recently the King Of Morocco was reported to have inaugurated the  Marrakech post-prison support and reintegration centre set up by the Mohammed VI Foundation with some interesting features .Wages generated by prisoners through their work will be handed over to them when they complete their  prison terms and some forms of social insurance will also  be provided.  According to the report, the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms   is focusing on how the inmates can be given a new life when they return back to society after concluding their respective prison terms.

In most cases a new life is not something that can simply be given to a released prisoner. Successful rehabilitation is a complex two way process. But in some particularly serious cases, a new identity and location do need to form part of a rehabilitative culture. How frequently that is required depends on the wider social acceptance of rehabilitation and whether effective measures can be taken to prepare communities for the safe return of serious criminals. Sometimes there will be cultural requirements to make amends to the family of the victim of a serious crime and indeed in some countries prisoners cannot be released until this is accomplished. Handling the return after serious and particularly after notorious crimes are difficult matters and require leadership.

When there is no real and tangible prospect of release   many believe, the punishment to be cruel and unusual. Replacing the death sentence with another form of penalty in which a prisoner inevitably will die in prison is only a partial success for those of us interested in reform.  As abolition of the death penalty gathers momentum, working on what happens instead arguably becomes a more important issue.

In Singapore they told me that they can have a commitment to rehabilitation because the public is confident that the system delivers harsh and strict punishment and once the debt has been paid then , offenders deserve to be given  a chance . The implication is  that in countries that adopt a more measured approach to punishment it is harder to win public support for rehabilitation. The challenge for us is to help develop systems that do not require such harshness as a pre condition for rehabilitation and particularly in the case of the most serious offenders offer a much better balance between the various objectives of criminal justice than we see in many countries around the world.

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