PRI’s Executive Director, Alison Hannah, and Omar Khan, project co-ordinator for our ExTRA project on alternatives to custody in East Africa, attended the Second World Congress on Community Corrections held in Los Angeles from 14-16 July. The conference was attended by 360 participants from 27 countries and focused on innovations in community corrections and the improvement of rehabilitation prospects for offenders. Alison and Omar delivered a workshop to share information about our ExTRA project to improve the use and implementation of community service orders in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Here she gives her highlights from the conference.
To me, there were some key themes that ran throughout all the contributions: in particular the importance of the personal in rehabilitation – from the building of self-esteem and self-awareness in both young and adult offenders to the importance of effective mental health treatment in successful rehabilitation.
The conference was opened by Professor Laurence Steinberg (of Temple University Philadelphia) with a speech which explained that the development of the brain in adolescence means it is a time when children are most vulnerable to loss of self-control – and often get into trouble with the law as a result. He sees rehabilitation as a moment of opportunity to ‘rewire’ the brain to change antisocial behaviour and avoid future contact with the criminal justice system. Perhaps one example of this is the arts and creativity programmes offered to young offenders in Jordanian prisons, which were presented at the conference and have been found to develop greater self-awareness and reduce the risk of re-offending.
Other keynote speakers addressed issues such as the effects of mental health on rehabilitation and providing guidance to offenders to encourage desistance. The impact of mental health issues on offenders was a recurring theme throughout the conference, with sessions dedicated to identifying effective treatment programs for trauma sufferers as well as how probation services could reduce recidivism by working with mental health specialists. People suffering from mental health issues in the criminal justice system have been identified as a particularly vulnerable group, and the conference highlighted the over-representation of people with mental health issues in prisons all over the world.
During the conference, the importance of recognising the individual strengths and skills of offenders was highlighted as a key factor in helping offenders turn their lives around. We know from studies conducted amongst prisoners that female offenders in particular suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth, which in turn can be exacerbated by imprisonment. By acknowledging offenders’ individual strengths, officials can help change offenders’ perspectives and in turn their prospects upon leaving prison. Gender-responsive approaches to criminal justice and the specific needs of women in the US criminal justice system were other issues also on the table at the conference, as countries and governments are becoming increasingly aware of the different and specialised needs of women in conflict with the law, particularly women who have suffered trauma.
Practical experiences and innovative programs from all over the world were shared, from GPS monitoring in Taiwan and South Korea to rehabilitation programs in Uganda. Although the country contexts were clearly different, the challenges facing both offenders and community corrections services around the world were strikingly similar – with many services facing restricted resources and looking for ways to provide the most effective services within these constraints. Overall the conference made it clear that effective and innovative programs that take into account offenders’ needs and backgrounds are vital to rehabilitating offenders and helping them to rebuild their lives.
See a short film about PRI’s work on reducing the use of imprisonment in Africa presented at the conference.