Every day about 20 news stories pop in my email inbox, giving the latest headlines from around the world on prison and penal issues.
Over the past couple of days, these include:
‘Epidemic of self-mutilation’ in women’s prisons in England and Wales’
‘Inmates need needle-exchange programs and better access to HIV treatment: study’ (Canada)
‘Anti-torture monitors report on Russia’
‘Prison privatisation doesn’t work’ (Australia)
‘Terrorist inmates’ return to society a concern in Indonesia’
‘Prison oversight lags: UN’ (Cambodia)
‘15316 Nigerians in Prisons Abroad, says Ministry’
‘Tunisia: Perils of pre-charge detention’
‘Prisons: Efforts to cut reoffending ‘not working’ (UK)
And – the odd one out – ‘Why is Sweden closing its prisons?’
What does this random selection of news items tell us about the state of penal reform today?
Sadly, it tells us that most news stories about prisons are bad news stories. It also mentions some of the key problems and challenges that are difficult to resolve. I suspect the same headlines could have appeared in relation to many other countries, and at any point over the past ten years. The pace of reform is slow and uncertain and we at PRI know that there are no quick fixes to bring about change.
Yet over the past twelve months we have made a difference – in some places and on some of these specific issues. We use the international standards as a benchmark to bring about fair, effective and proportionate responses to criminal justice problems. Working with partners, internationally, regionally and nationally, we develop practical measures to improve the experience of men, women and children in conflict with the law.
At the end of the year, our EU-funded programme to fight torture in nine countries of the former Soviet Union ended. An independent evaluation concluded unequivocally that our work in this field should continue and gave us specific recommendations to help us focus our future work. With our partner organisation, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, we published a tool to support monitoring bodies carry out their oversight role over police facilities or prisons more effectively.
Our programme in Kazakhstan to develop and strengthen rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for former prisoners also came to a conclusion. A national forum for law enforcement bodies, local authorities, former prisoners and civil society bodies agreed the need to improve employment training and job opportunities for ex-prisoners and will be followed up with a second prison forum in the early part of 2014.
Women prisoners form a small minority of the prison population and their gender-specific needs are often overlooked in criminal justice systems designed for men. Throughout 2013 we raised this issue at a wide range of international and national forums and events. We published a comprehensive ‘Toolbox’ to implement the Bangkok Rules (the UN standard to improve the situation for women offenders). We launched an e-learning course to enable prison staff and people working with women offenders to put them into practice. We published primary research on the characteristics of women offenders in Armenia and Georgia, and further research with women prisoners in Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa will be published in 2014.
Improving justice for women and children are two of our current priorities. In both cases, there is a great need to expand the range of alternatives to detention – both pre-trial and in sentencing options. Progress towards child-friendly justice systems continued through advocacy and national programmes. In 2013, our training manual on justice for children, based on internationally agreed good practice and practical experience in a number of countries, was published.
We also commissioned a policy briefing on current trends and challenges on the use and practice of imprisonment, which will inform our future plans. At a time of global economic uncertainty, many countries are looking at ways to cut public spending on criminal justice. However, the causes of crime are many and complex and outsourcing parts of the justice system to private business is not necessarily a solution. The way forward is fraught with obstacles but there is a growing body of evidence to show that community-based sanctions have greater individual and social benefits than short terms of imprisonment; that diversion and alternatives to detention cause less damage to children and women offenders while protecting the community; and that public oversight and transparency of the prison system is essential to reduce torture.
Sweden may remain the exception that proves the rule. Still, in 2014 we aim to show there are more constructive ways to protect society and maintain security than by simply pressing the default button to lock people up.
With best wishes for the season,