Thursday, 24 April 2014

25 Years to Life: Why the Need for Penal Reform International is as Great as Ever

  This week,  Penal Reform International (PRI) celebrates 25 years of work to improve prisons around the world, an unfashionable cause if ever there was one, but as in need of attention today as it was back in 1989.

I first worked with the international ngo in 1994, to deliver training to prison staff in one of the Baltic States on human rights and resettlement. Such was the enthusiasm of the participants that they took photos of the acetates as we placed them on the overhead projector so that the information could be quickly disseminated beyond the classroom. This was not so much down to the quality of the material as to the keen desire – shared by many who work in prisons the world over- to learn from international standards and experience in order to improve the way they do their jobs.  Encouraging a professional and positive ethos within prisons has been one of the staples of PRI’s work, whether through staff training, the development of rehabilitation projects or working with civil society to increase oversight of places of detention.

Sadly the capacity to make improvements is all too often frustrated by chronic under resourcing, gross overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure.  If, as they reported this week, inspectors in the UK can find cells in a young offender institution not fit for occupation, it’s hardly surprising that in lower income countries conditions are often far more squalid and even life threatening. 

In 2000 I helped PRI assess prison conditions in the Middle East. What we saw shocked even the most experienced members of the team. In one establishment, the overflowing mass of humanity packed into rooms scarcely larger than store cupboards, stood in barbaric counterpoint to the elegant exterior of the Levantine villa which housed them.  The adverse physical and mental consequences of such congestion weigh particularly heavily on women, children and other vulnerable groups, for whom PRI has always attached a particular priority.

As PRI has always recognised, the answers to most of the problems within prisons lie beyond their walls. Developing diversion programmes for juveniles and para legal programmes to reduce unnecessary pre-trial detention have been notable successes which have been emulated in many countries by both government and non-government organisations. More challenging has been the creation of meaningful and sustainable alternatives to prison sentences for petty offenders.

The work that I’ve been involved in most recently has been to strengthen the community service programmes in East Africa which PRI originally helped bring into being in the 1990’s. Despite initial impact, courts have sometimes been reluctant to impose non-custodial orders, probation services ill -equipped to implement them and the public uncertain about supporting them. PRI is testing how best to turn the tide, with promising results. 

 PRI has always been keen to promote such results from its work with a range of global and regional bodies concerned with human rights and with criminal justice. The UN’s 2012 Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid owe much to the organisation’s work and the current initiative to update and improve the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners was really set in train by PRI. But unlike some organisations, success for PRI is not measured simply by impact in Geneva, Vienna or New York but through practical improvement on the ground. Similarly, PRI’s campaigning to end the death penalty does not stop with abolition but includes work to develop humane alternatives to put in its place.

AS PRI enters its second quarter century, there may be some encouraging signs. The global prison population rate looks stable, the USA may be finally edging away from mass incarceration, and the war on drugs if not coming to an end is entering a less violent phase. But there are threats too not least to some of the human rights standards that underpin PRI’s approach. Mapping the trends and challenges facing prison systems across the globe is one of the projects underway in its anniversary year in readiness for next year’s UN Crime Congress in Qatar.

In the meantime, in most of the world, prisons continue to be humanitarian disasters, comprising a complex set of problems to which the world too often turns a blind eye. We need PRI both to keep these problems high on the agenda, and to develop just and sustainable ways to address them.

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