International consensus has shifted from punitive approaches to rehabilitative-based prisons, with their methods having better overall outcomes for people detained and released from prison. In some countries there are extremely well-developed rehabilitation programmes. However, constant under-resourcing, coupled with overstretched staff and overcrowded prisons mean that rehabilitation programming remains extremely limited or non-existent in some places, especially in low-income countries. The challenges COVID-19 presents to prison management continues to impact effective implementation of rehabilitation and the scope, quality and relevance of specific programmes for individuals in prison and the community more broadly.
The critical role prison staff play in rehabilitation is increasingly recognised, reflected in a general trend towards aligning prison officers’ roles with rehabilitative principles and shaping roles or specifically designating staff as rehabilitation officers, as seen in Singapore. In many cases, however, the role of prison staff in rehabilitation is not matched by corresponding levels of training, support or acknowledgement of the increased demand in terms of staff time, skills, and competencies. For example, a study on employment quality of prison staff in four European countries found that prison staff are now expected to combine surveillance and rehabilitative functions. It found that that structural understaffing, overcrowding and lack of training makes it impossible for them to do both functions effectively and that this results in significant work-related stress and a corresponding deterioration in the quality of services they deliver.
Investment in supporting prison staff has been proven to promote rehabilitation in two studies in Ghana and Italy. In the former, a survey of more than 1,000 Ghanaian prison staff revealed that those who felt confident in their role and who had good relationships with people they supervise were more supportive of rehabilitation initiatives. The results from the Italian study found a strong link between prison staff training and the rehabilitation of foreign nationals in prison. Conversely, lack of staff support for rehabilitation can result in deliberate efforts to impede or undermine such programmes, and staff may actively discourage individuals from participating in them.
The effects of the pandemic on staff numbers in prisons (see Prison staff) as well as inadequate training initiatives and working conditions of prison staff continue to inhibit the successful delivery of rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. For example, in Kenya, detainees who relied on tutors to bring in physical material were seriously affected during the pandemic and, further, found themselves unable to take university exams when they shifted to an online format.
COVID-19 has led to a range of innovations in facilitating rehabilitation programmes. In Indonesia, virtual sessions were held with prison staff on designing prison-based rehabilitation programmes and brands of prison products to foster social reintegration. In Ukraine, new rehabilitation programmes developed in 2021 focused on retaining family ties while in prison and problem-solving as transferrable skills for people in prison. In England and Wales, as of March 2022, Employment Advisory Boards are being rolled out following a successful trial in 20 prisons. The Boards are chaired by business experts from big companies and act as a link between prisons and employers to ensure people leaving prison have the right skills and links to stable job opportunities on release.
There is a growing trend of peer mentoring for people in criminal justice systems, with programmes existing in a number of countries, including Sweden, Finland, the UK, Canada, Australia, Mozambique and Israel, as well as in the regions of Siberia and parts of Central Asia. Their effectiveness in improving rehabilitation, as well as health, has been evidenced in new research. In the US it was found that lived experience of imprisonment confers credibility and that peers can offer very practical advice for life after prison.
Peer mentorship in substance dependency programmes and for people involved in gangs were areas of particular value. In Canada, peer programmes at the time of release from prison were proven to be beneficial when other services were reduced or suspended due to COVID-19. While the pandemic highlighted existing deficiencies in social support systems, peer programmes were able to respond flexibly and offer the additional practical and emotional support needed in preparing for release during the pandemic.