The primary purpose of prison should be rehabilitation. It is in all our interests that prisoners return to the community with the skills and attitudes that will enable them to stay out of prison in the future.
Even for those prisoners serving long-term or life sentences, there is a case for rehabilitation. Policies change, sentences may be commuted or reviewed, or pardons or amnesties granted. Life should not simply become ‘hopeless’, without any meaningful occupation or prospect for the future.
Successful rehabilitation and reintegration relies on a number of factors:
- the availability of educational and vocational programmes
- medical care to address underlying problems such as drug dependency and mental health issues
- the possibility of early conditional release or parole.
Rehabilitation should begin at the start of a sentence, not just a few weeks before release. It should not end at the prison door, but support should continue to be provided in the community. Former offenders need support to find their feet and address the challenges of returning back to society.
There are many models of rehabilitation and reintegration around the world – from Africa’s prison farms to innovative post-release mentoring schemes. However, rehabilitation is a difficult task. Prisons are not well suited to the social reintegration of offenders, and imprisonment rarely addresses the root cause of offending. Isolation from society for long periods of time in a harmful and sometimes violent environment, together with the potential loss of employment, home and family, is more likely to have a desocialising effect than to promote law-abiding behaviour after release.
Prison overcrowding and inadequate resources also militate against successful rehabilitation and reintegration. Overcrowding strains resources and focuses the attention of prison management on controlling the prison population on a day-to-day basis rather than on investing in longer-term rehabilitation programmes. 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 prisoners also make rehabilitation difficult.
Certain groups of prisoners are particularly unlikely to receive support. In some countries prisoners serving short-term sentences are excluded from, or unable to participate in, vocational programmes or work. Women prisoners are usually at a particular disadvantage, as rehabilitation programmes are designed for the majority male prison population, or only provide gender-stereotyped activities like cooking or sewing.