Whether a prison term or non-custodial sanction, a sentence should seek to reduce reoffending through rehabilitation. Rehabilitation should address the reasons for criminal behaviour and seek to improve the lives of those convicted. People who have served prison sentences should be able to return to their communities with an outlook and skills which will keep them from re-entering prison.
The Nelson Mandela Rules stipulate that prisons should offer education, vocational training, work, and any other assistance needed for the purpose of rehabilitation/resocialisation and reintegration. This reflects the primary purpose of imprisonment to protect society and reduce recidivism. To be successful such programmes should be individualised. Prisons should recognise the key role staff play in the rehabilitation of prisoners.
Certain groups are particularly unlikely to receive support. In some countries people in prison serving short-term sentences are excluded from, or unable to participate in vocational programmes or work. Women in prison are usually at a disadvantage, as rehabilitation programmes are designed for the majority male prison population or only provide gender-stereotyped activities for women, such as cooking or sewing. Read more in our guide on rehabilitation for women in prison.
There are many models of rehabilitation and reintegration around the world, such as prison farms, to innovative post-release mentoring schemes. Yet, rehabilitation is a difficult task. Prisons are not well suited to the social reintegration of people who have served prison sentences, and imprisonment rarely addresses the root cause of offending. Isolation from society, potential loss of employment, home and family connections can have de–socialising effects on people in prison, leaving them under-prepared for their release. Prison overcrowding and inadequate resources multiply the difficulties of rehabilitation and reintegration. Limited resources mean that educational and vocational opportunities, as well as drug and alcohol treatment programmes, are few and far between. A lack of adequate staff training and punitive attitudes towards the management of people in prison also hinder rehabilitation.
Successful rehabilitation and reintegration rely on the availability of educational and vocational programmes, medical care to address underlying problems such as drug dependency and mental health issues and the possibility of early conditional release or parole. We will support prison administrations, probation services and civil society to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, ensuring they are adequately tailored for age and gender.
Alternatives to imprisonment