Justice and Prisons were in Astana last week to contribute to a major conference on the future of the penal system in Kazakhstan. What Solzhenitsyn called the country of the camps in soviet times made remarkable progress in reforming its prisons in the first decade of this century. A gradual process of decriminalisation and the introduction of alternatives to imprisonment led to falls in the prison population that ten years ago ranked among the very highest in the world. In 2008, the UN Committee against Torture was among several observers to note an improvement in conditions of detention. The statutory system of public monitoring of prisons is the first in Central Asia and juvenile justice is being radically transformed. While the system remained far from perfect, to its credit the Government appeared to recognise the need for further reforms. A willingness to engage with fresh thinking and bring about change based on human rights standards was marked by the transfer of responsibility for prisons from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Justice in 2002 with pre trial detention centres following suit a year later.
It is clear that these changes remain highly fragile. Out of the blue and without consultation a Presidential decree this summer returned the prison system to the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Justice it seemed had failed in its duty with too many disturbances in prisons and too many escapes – although ironically perimeter security has always remained a job for the Interior Ministry. The country had apparently been too ready to listen to international experts and to humanise the system. As a result crimes had increased and in particular prisons had become hot houses for violent extremism. Returning Prisons to the Ministry responsible for policing and security would offer better protection.
Last week’s conference represented an effort by civil society to make the case for continuing the process of reform in this new era. The prospects are confused. There are revisions to the Criminal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Penal execution Code underway. From some corners there are strong calls for the wider and more imaginative non custodial sanctions, a probation service, the reduction in sentence lengths and the transformation of the colony system. But heightened concerns about security threaten further progress in these directions. A religious law passed recently has banned prayer rooms in any state buildings, including prisons with the result that even small churches have been prohibited from running rehabilitation programmes.
Amidst this confusion, one unplanned intervention at the conference showed with utter clarity the need for further action to bring justice into prisons. An uninvited but passionate speaker described the death of his brother in custody. He described the range of mortal injuries and circulated photos of his brother’s body that clearly showed the extent of a brutal assault. He also described the lengthy and so far inconclusive investigation process in which he clearly had little faith. The conference organisers, showed considerable credit in permitting the intervention and the authorities and civil society who he identified as lacking in fulfilling their responsibilities responded as best they could. Of course, in the face of such grief and a matter of such profound importance, no rushed verbal response could be sufficient.What the intervention illustrated is that despite the progress that has been made in prison reform, violence and a culture of impunity are a constant danger in any penal system. A tougher approach to the use and practice of imprisonment is often justified in terms of security. But security is not simply a theoretical political idea but something that is tangibly measured by the security of each of its citizens, individuals who should be free from brutality and injustice- and that includes those who are detained or imprisoned whether for a matter of hours, days weeks or years.
Criminal justice has only a part to play in tackling the political and social challenges facing Kazakhstan and many other countries. Combating poverty, improving education, developing health and social security and eliminating discrimination are more likely to reduce extremism than tougher penal policies. The same is true of drug misuse and violence more generally. All too often over reliance on criminal punishment proves counter productive. But the case for prison reform is not just about effects but about values. As the then Chair of the Penitentiary Committee in Kazakhstan put it in 2003 “what is our priority: the interests of crime detection or the rights and freedoms of citizens? “. For Justice and Prisons it is the latter.