Lets Have a Global Prison Reform Programme from the UN

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Next week the UN General Assembly will spend a day considering what can be done to strengthen the rule of law across the globe. The agenda will be self evidently high level, looking no doubt at matters such as how to combat impunity at an international level and the importance of transitional justice in post conflict countries.

Member states will probably be encouraged to improve access to justice for the poor, to ensure that courts operate independently of the government and take steps to curb corrupt practices among law enforcement agencies.  Giving proper attention to such weighty subjects may leave little time to consider prison reform.  But there are strong reasons to hope that addressing the situation of the nine million plus people behind bars is more than a footnote to the GA’s deliberations.

In the last week alone there have been reports of detention conditions in Chad tantamount to a death sentence, grotesque torture in Georgia’s prisons, and the buying and selling of room space in Indonesian jails.  Riots, hunger strikes and deadly fires are all too frequent with overcrowding and a pitifully low quality of life the norm for prisoners in many high income countries let alone poorer ones.

Why does all this matter? As the new British Justice Minister has said prison is not meant to be a place that people enjoy being in. Opinion polls in many countries suggest that majorities want governments to take a harder line on crime.

Prison reform is important for two reasons. Pragmatically since almost all prisoners will sooner or later return to live in society it’s in no ones interest for them to return further alienated and embittered. Inspectors last year found that the UK’s largest young offender prison   introduced some young people to gangs and a violent culture which they had not previously experienced.  But prison reform is important in principle too. Treating all people with dignity and respect is a cornerstone of civilised values. If exceptions are made, peaceful and ordered societies become harder to create with conflict, crime and violence more likely outcomes.It is ghastly paradox that places designed to enforce the rule of law are in large parts of the world themselves lawless.

So what should the UN do?   One possibility would be to create a Global Prison Reform Programme to assist the development of humane and effective penal policies and practices.  The Programme might aim for the kind of outcomes expected from Norway’s assistance to prison systems in Eastern Europe. To overcome challenges connected to growing prison populations and prison overcrowding; an increased application of alternatives to prison; a greater focus on vulnerable groups in prison and improved competences of both inmates and prison staff. Funds and technical assistance could be provided so that more of the excellent work undertaken by UN bodies to identify and collate good practices can be implemented in the field.

The torture in Georgia is a sobering reminder that countries with large levels of aid and assistance do not always get round to effective prison reform. But the outraged response from the public, that they will not tolerate such abuse is heartening. Let us hope that the General assembly have heard that and are prepared to act at a global level.




  1. Martin Wright  March 11, 2013

    The starting point needs to be a re-think of what prison is for, indeed what the criminal justice system is for. Surely it is to persuade people to behave better, and to enable them to do so. The third element, of which we have become increasingly aware in recent years, is to make things better for victims. So the next question is, Is prison the most effective way of doing this? Even more fundamental, Is the use of threats the most effective way? So we need programmes which show offenders that they can behave better and get more out of life that way; and show governments that they get more out of people by turning them into citizens who contribute to society. If people ask ‘How does that punish people?’, punishment for its own sake is not the answer. We should talk about ‘consequences’ instead. The answer is firstly that taking part in the programmes takes away some of their time, and secondly that the right sort of consequence is the pain people feel because they know that they have harmed someone else. Fear of pain inflicted on themselves is the wrong sort of consequence. Do we really want a society based on fear? Awareness of victims (including meeting them in appropriate cases) leads them to feel that ‘right kind of pain’, and motivates them to take part in the programmes. Prisons would then be only for people who present a serious risk of serious re-offending, and for those who refuse to co-operate with the programmes. The programmes themselves should also be available in prisons. All of this puts some responsibility on ‘us’, the rest of society, to provide the programmes – and to look at the pressures towards crime and try to eliminate them. In all of this we should not forget the ‘crimes of the powerful: not only the big corporations which damage people’s lives in order to make money (which is exactly what robbers do) but the individual human beings who run those corporations should be held to account in similar ways..
    How do we make this happen? By publicizing programmes which operate successfully on these principles, by showing that they are less costly, and by persuading the public to accept them.

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