30 years ago, Vivien Stern, Ahmed Othmani and Hans Tulkens created Penal Reform International. They had in common the belief we still cherish, as stated by Nelson Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”. In other words, the health of criminal justice systems and conditions in prisons are essential indicators of the status of human rights in any country and society as a whole.
“[Life in prison is] a slow, torturous death. Maybe it would have been better if they had just given me the electric chair and ended my life instead of a life sentence, letting me rot away in jail. It serves no purpose. It becomes a burden on everybody.”
In our strategy, we set out that we believe criminal justice systems should respond to and uphold the human rights of marginalised and minority groups who are most at risk of discrimination and harm under the law. This includes people with low socioeconomic status, women, children and young adults, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, older persons, ethnic and religious minorities and foreign nationals or those without proof of identity.
Most women in the criminal justice system are imprisoned for petty, non-violent offences often as a result of discrimination, deprivation and violence. When convicted of serious crimes such as murder or manslaughter, in a significant number of cases the victim is a male partner or family member known to have committed domestic violence. Read more about our research on women who kill in response to domestic violence. Prison staff are often not trained to respect the integrity of women and girls and criminal justice systems remain ill-equipped to answer their needs.
Another area of work for us in the decade ahead are laws targeting poor or socially excluded populations. There are laws which explicitly or implicitly criminalise behaviours deemed anti-social or those associated with low socioeconomic status, such as the inability to pay fines or taxes, or criminalising acts such as small-scale selling without a licence or sleeping on the street.
We will develop our work in contexts of humanitarian crisis. Working with United Nations peacekeeping missions, we hope to contribute to stabilization efforts through rebuilding criminal justice systems as an indispensable pillar of building peace, reinforcing the rule of law and trust in state institutions.
One of the innovations in our strategy is our aim to increase work in relation to natural disasters: people in detention settings are indeed often forgotten victims of natural disasters. The effects of climate change are likely to increase in frequency and scale, and we will work to develop human rights-based disaster and emergency preparedness plans.
Nobody left behind
All persons in contact with the criminal justice system are vulnerable because they are subject to the power of the state, on whom they depend to meet their needs and protect their human rights. States must not abuse this power and must seek to protect the human rights of all people who are in contact with their criminal justice systems.
With all of this in mind – and much more in the strategy! – we will provide an indispensable contribution to the renewal of human rights over the next decade. Our opportunity is the United Nations 2030 Agenda, which sets out the Sustainable Development Goals. Through them, humanity set a goal: nobody left behind.
Nobody left behind is adopted as the core principle of our 2020-2023 strategy.
Diversity and accountability
Vivien Stern, Ahmed Othmani and Hans Tulkens were very different personalities with distinctive backgrounds. As Executive Director of PRI, I am proud to say that this diversity makes us who we are today; a trusted and specialised group of human rights defenders and penal reform activists. We operate from various locations with staff from a wide range of backgrounds.
We are convinced that our strength comes from our collaboration across the regions in which we work and learning from each other. We want to solidify our work as a unified organisation, with one Board, one budget and one set of accounts which reflect all the projects undertaken in all the regions in which we work, and one set of values: do no harm, equality, transparency and humanity.
Do no harm, equality, transparency and humanity are values we want to live up to ourselves. Our values inform how we approach criminal justice reform and set the tone for how we function as an organisation. Our new strategy lays out how those values guide our work and how we operate. We want all our staff members, partners and donors to hold us to account.
As we launch our new strategy, I am incredibly proud to lead a diverse staff, embracing PRI’s 30 years of experience, committed to the values set out in the strategy and dedicated to building our work over the next decade.