Make 2016 the International Year of Prison Reform

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Prisons are a disaster in many parts of the world. In the USA and parts of Europe, punitive sentencing places often intolerable burdens on the custodial system and those who work in it; in Africa, failures to meet basic needs mean detention can be a death sentence for the sick and weak; in Latin America many so called self- governing prisons are run on principles of extortion and violence while in Asia brutality is often enshrined in extremely harsh regimes. While there is a growing consensus on how to improve prisons, relatively few countries have taken the necessary steps to reduce overcrowding, develop appropriate infrastructure or recruit and train the necessary staff in modern management.

This year has seen one or two rays of light   – particularly American initiatives to move away from imprisonment as a default response to wrongdoing.   Could these herald a new dawn for prison reform?

There are three reasons why creating effective and humane penal systems should take on a much greater priority in the coming year. First the UN recognised in 2015 that sustainable development depends on access to justice for all and the creation of accountable and inclusive institutions including police, courts and prisons.  The UN’s torture committee also pointed out the nexus between poverty, discrimination and imprisonment with the poorest and most marginalized individuals or groups most likely to come into contact with criminal justice one way or another.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to end poverty and hunger, ensure healthy lives and promote lifelong learning need to have places of detention in their sights. This is not only because of the concentrations of suffering and need prisons contain but the opportunities they provide for more positive outcomes. Prisons can do much more to produce food, teach skills or even promote enterprise- although in almost all countries these development benefits can be much more cost effectively achieved through investment in alternative sanctions such as community service rather than prison building.

Alongside the adoption of this overarching humanitarian case for prison reform, 2015 has also seen the UN relaunch the human rights case for improving the response to people in conflict with the law. The Nelson Mandela Rules adopted by the General Assembly last week emphasise that all prisoners should be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings, with no prisoner subjected to, and all prisoners protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification.

The Rules include important revisions to the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules (SMR’s) in respect of healthcare in prisons, investigations of deaths in custody, disciplinary measures, professionalisation of prison staff, and independent inspections. The revised Rules also introduce for the first time in international standards a limitation on the use of solitary confinement and provide guidance on the use of searches, notably strict regulation of intrusive searches of prisoners.

Despite signing up to these standards, why, it might be asked, should the international community make any more effort to meet them than they have with the existing SMR’s?  One reason is a growing recognition that while there may be costs to treating people decently in prison, there are greater costs in not doing so. As the UN Special Rapporteur has said “Torture only breeds more crime and more terrorism” and poor treatment falling short of torture has adverse consequences too.

The most extreme example of prisons aggravating rather than reducing insecurity is often during and after conflict. It is widely accepted that Daesh was in large part formed inside Camp Bucca, the US detention centre in Iraq. While detaining former combatants is perhaps the most challenging task of all for prison systems, meeting basic standards and applying principles of good management are a minimum requirement if detention is to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem.

In other parts of the world, while the consequence may be less threatening than in the Middle East, if treated badly, many people exit prisons less well equipped to stay out of trouble  than when they enter. Lacking skills, resources or support and embittered by their experience inside, ex-prisoners the world over go back to crime in alarming numbers.  As well as being right on humanitarian and human rights grounds, prison reform which improves prospects of reintegration can therefore produce concrete social benefits in the form of less reoffending.

Donors are increasingly looking at ways to strengthen global peace, security and governance. The UK’s Department for International Development announced its new objectives last month, the first of which involves addressing the causes of instability, insecurity and conflict as well as tackling crime and corruption. These say DfID are “fundamental to poverty reduction overseas and will also strengthen our own national security at home”.

Ensuring that prisons in all countries are seen as legitimate institutions which do what they can to fulfil their international mandate of reformation and social rehabilitation should be recognised by all governments as an important component in strategies to achieve these aims.  
What is needed is, first, an emphasis on ensuring that prison is used as a last resort- a wide range of alternative measures should be available for dealing with less serious defendants and offenders with detention reserved for those for those who represent a danger to society.  Second within prisons,   conditions and treatment need to provide not just security but opportunities for change.

The final UN SDG concerns strengthening the means of implementing the other 16 goals and revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development. On prisons, exchanging knowledge and information on effective policies and practices and providing technical assistance which apply them appropriately in countries that wish to introduce change are often essential elements of reform strategies.  But the process needs a big push from the world’s leaders. One way would be to make 2016 the international year of prison reform.