In this blog Olivia Rope, Executive Director of Penal Reform International, gives a summary and highlights a few key points from the recently published ‘Common position on incarceration’ from the United Nations System.
For the first time, the United Nations system has issued a common position on incarceration which was unveiled at an event on the side-lines of the annual UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice last month. It comes after a year where prisons have faced unprecedented challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of which stem from systematic, long-standing problems that have remained unaddressed for decades. In our recently published Global Prison Trends 2021 report, we detail the level of crisis in many prisons globally exposed by the pandemic alongside examples of progress and reform brought by it. Many of the enduring issues in our report that affect the 11 million people in prisons globally, and the many more affected by criminal justice policies, are touched upon in the common position.
There are several large bodies who work on incarceration within the UN system – all addressing different aspects and with different priorities and mandates. These include the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Department of Peacekeeping. This ambitious document seeks to bring the work of these bodies and others together. It speaks of a ‘one UN approach’ and lays out this common approach under three thematic areas:
- Shifting policies towards crime prevention and alternatives to incarceration;
- Strengthening prison management and improving prison conditions, and
- Advancing the rehabilitation and social reintegration of offenders.
Six or seven pages of background set the scene to the three objectives – under ‘Purpose and scope’, ‘Global prison challenges’ and ‘Key Observations’ – giving some detail to the problems that the UN system seeks to address.
Much of it is not new, having drawn on various other UN documents, however there are a few areas worth noting.
An emphasis on reducing prison populations
With a record number of people in prison globally the weight given to addressing the ‘current overreliance on and implementation of incarceration’ is welcomed, and very much needed. Drivers of the increase in the use of prison cited include the lack of alternatives to imprisonment available to a judge or a reluctance to apply them, ‘zero tolerance’ policies and populist rhetoric calling for stricter law enforcement and sentencing, including the increase in life imprisonment.
The impacts of using prison as a ‘default’ are stated unequivocally, including prison overcrowding – described as an ‘acute’ crisis.
Some attention to life imprisonment
PRI has been calling for action at the UN level to tackle the increase and human rights impacts of life imprisonment for several years now. As the UN Assistant Secretary-General, Ilze Brands Kehris, explained in her opening remarks at our recent event on the topic at the UN Crime Congress, ‘The costs and consequences for human dignity and human rights are immense and gravely affect progress towards the 2030 sustainable development agenda and its commitment to leave no one behind.’
The common position cites the most recent data which shows that the number of people serving formal life sentences globally rose by 84% between 2000 and 2014. It also points out that such long sentences make social reintegration and a rehabilitative approach in line with the UN Nelson Mandela Rules ‘even more difficult’. We hope now that these unnecessarily harsh sentences receive the adequate attention and reform efforts from UN bodies who can influence policy and practice at the national level, as well as drive international standard-setting.
Discrimination and inequalities
Published almost a year after the killing of George Floyd and protests calling for action on the widespread discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in criminal justice systems in various regions, the common position commits to combatting racism. However, this is somewhat limited to the treatment of people in prison, rather than their pathways to prison which is fraught with inequality.
Other groups who are overrepresented in prison and face discrimination while detained that are mentioned in the common position include people with mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities, children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex persons, women, and persons who use drugs, have drug use orders, drug couriers or small-scale dealers.
Specific needs of women
The common position addresses a couple of the key reasons for the rise in the number of women in prison globally – drug-related offences and so-called ‘moral crimes’ (such as adultery). Specific aspects related to women are addressed under the three objectives and throughout the common position – an acknowledgement that ten years on from the adoption of the UN Bangkok Rules there is a real need for concerted efforts to amp up efforts to reform and build criminal justice systems, including prisons within these, that are suitable and responsive to women’s particular circumstances and needs.
Decriminalisation and depenalisation as an important reform tool
One of the most positive features of the document is the call for depenalisation and decriminalisation of certain offences in line with the UN Tokyo Rules. It recognises that poverty and discrimination lead to many minority and marginalised people being charged with petty and non-violent offences.
Vague, arbitrary, colonial-era petty offences remain on law books in many countries across various regions, including in Africa where at least 42 countries have laws against vagrancy, being idle or disorderly, or a “rogue and vagabond”, which are actively enforced.
In terms of certain drug offences it also reflects the UN System Common Position on drug-related matters, which calls for the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use.
Adequate numbers of well-supported and trained prison staff are central to the effective and humane management of any prison system. Recognising this, and the reality that many work in adverse work environments amidst a declining number of prison staff per prisoner (see PRI’s new analysis on staff to prisoner ratios in Global Prison Trends 2021), the common position has given significant attention to improving the status quo for staffing. It is also stated that the fact that prison officers are ‘typically held in lower regard than other public officials working in the criminal justice system’ is a factor that is ‘increasing the risk of torture, ill-treatment and other human rights violations in prisons.’ Organisational culture in detention facilities, and the role of prison staff in bringing about change and a rehabilitative approach, are given due merit.
We welcome some consideration as to how civil society organisations, such as PRI, fit in with the aspiring targets. Unlike the Kyoto Declaration adopted by member states at the recent UN Crime Congress where civil society’s role was diminished to one of a ‘partnership’ with states only, and most worryingly with the caveat ‘as appropriate’, the common position recognises the ‘important role that civil society plays’ in this area particularly highlighting rehabilitation and social reintegration of people in prison. Furthermore, one of its ‘Directions for action’ (see below) – albeit brief – is to strengthen partnerships with international organisations and civil society.
There are five ‘Directions for action’ set out to implement the objectives of the common position:
- Ensuring that incarceration and its overuse ‘remain high on the political agenda’. At PRI, we would argue that the UN system should ensure not only the status quo, as if we are to make any progress in turning the tide on the increasing global prison population, we need bolder commitments and action.
- The UN system commits to enhancing or intensifying UN advocacy efforts to support Member States in addressing those challenges with a list of possible focus areas, including law reform to make proportionate sentencing a reality, legal representation for suspects and defendants, and that drug policies and responses to drug use are evidence-based and health-centred using community responses, rather than incarceration.
- The third ‘direction for action’ is to strengthen UN capacity to respond to requests for assistance from Member States. This will require resources and funding – perhaps the core problem in addressing many of the challenges facing prisons (and wider criminal justice systems) globally. Most concretely is an action point to establish a centralised UN information hub on incarceration, described as a digital ‘one-stop-shop’.
- There is a pledge on enhancing prison support in UN field missions and other crisis settings. At PRI, we couldn’t agree more that ‘Prison reform tends to remain a low priority’ in such settings and the measures emphasised are in line with many of our recommendations. There is a dire need for an increased focus on the role of penitentiary institutions in peacebuilding and stabilisation missions as this is a requisite for achieving a functioning judicial system and other core government functions.
- And finally, the UN system will further strengthen its coordination and partnership with international and civil society organisations (see above).
We hope that this common position on incarceration will bring the ‘One UN’ approach it seeks to achieve, with better and more connected work to address the significant challenges in this area. We know that partnership brings about greater change, and with the current state of prisons globally and the crisis that has been exposed further by the global pandemic, change has never been needed more.