PRI’s Executive Director reports from a meeting organised by the Open Society Foundations to discuss how the US can support interventions to improve prison conditions in developing countries.
It’s a few years now since PRI had to close its small office in the U.S. when funding ran out, and since then it’s been more difficult to keep in touch with developments in criminal justice and penal reform there. We were therefore pleased to accept an invitation from the Open Society Foundation to participate at a seminar they hosted on 6 June in Washington DC. The aim was to share information between U.S. State Department officials and international NGOs and discuss ways in which the US could support some low cost but effective interventions to improve conditions.
International expert Rob Allen set the scene with a global overview of rates of imprisonment and prison conditions, while I spoke about our current work to assist governments reduce the prison population (such as in Kazakhstan and Georgia); to improve prison conditions through more effective prison monitoring systems, improved health care awareness and human rights training for prison managers. Martin Schonteich from the Open Society Justice Initiative stressed the ongoing psychological and health problems facing people in detention from excessive use of pre-trial detention and poor and overcrowded prison facilities.
Many good examples of interventions were given, ranging from large building infrastructure programmes supported by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement; training on standards and mentoring provided by the American Correctional Association, and training on human rights of prisoners from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour at the Department of State. We were all impressed with the inspirational healthcare and humanitarian initiatives developed by the INGO Health through Walls.
While all agree there are no quick fixes or easy answers, there were many ideas to improve conditions without substantial financial investment. While prison building may seem an attractive option where the prison infrastructure is decaying and insanitary, the improvement may be illusory in the long term. Conditions will only improve where there is a determination to keep minor offenders outside prison and cut the numbers of people in pre-trial detention, often languishing in squalid and unhealthy conditions.