Prison conditions in much of the world are nothing short of a humanitarian disaster. Take Brazil where the world’s attention is currently focussed. More than half a million prisoners are crammed into a system designed for 350,000, about two fifths of whom are awaiting trial. Many of the institutions designed to uphold the rule of law are life –threatening. While the extent of violence, and risks of riots and fires may be higher than in most countries, Brazil’s jails are far from unique. At a seminar organised by the Open Society Foundations last week, experts catalogued the wholly inadequate buildings and catastrophic levels of hunger, ill health and corruption inside them which characterise prisons in poor countries.
The aim of the seminar was to map out a strategy for international actors to help to address these problems. Of course any intervention must be based on a diagnosis not only of symptoms but the underlying problems. Any prescription must be based on compliance with international standards, coordination with national and international stakeholders and the involvement of civil society. Vulnerable groups and prisoners with special needs also need priority attention. But what should be done?
Based on experience of reform initiatives in many countries, Justice and Prisons proposed a framework of intervention comprising four levels of progressively intensive activity. These are as follows
Level 1 Small-scale Equipment and Infrastructure Improvement such as
Repairing creating perimeter security to make better use of space to reduce congestion
Purchasing of beds, mattresses, mosquito nets, fans, kitchen equipment
Donating furniture or equipment for vocational training or books for education
Level 2 Capacity Building through
Training of staff on human rights and making change happen and incorporating modules in training school curriculum for entrants and managers
Development of needs and risk prisoner assessment and classification system
Technical assistance with updating prison law rules and regulations
Level 3 System Improvement by
Streamlining case file management processes
Solving prisoner transportation problems
Funding mobile court sessions/Piloting court-prison video links
Obtaining screening equipment for infectious diseases
Establishing model prisons
Level 4 Criminal Justice Reform via
Reducing demand for pre- trial detention
Developing alternatives to short prison sentences
Building sustainable processes for parole and early release
Reviewing the penal code and sentencing practice
Justice and Prisons would be interested to hear views on whether this framework could be a helpful way of thinking about reform efforts and would stimulate much needed action in this neglected area.