How to Improve Prison Conditions: A Framework for Reform

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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.