Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Is Working to Reform the Saudi Prison System Such a Bad Thing?

I don’t normally shy away from dishing out criticism to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) but the current row about a possible training project with the Saudi Prison Service seems overblown to me.

I need to declare an interest. I make a living in part from consultancy work on criminal justice and prisons. Over the last ten years or so this has included work on a range of international projects funded directly or indirectly by the UK government.  Inevitably perhaps, most have been in countries with bad human rights records including Russia, China, Libya and Turkmenistan. The work has for the most part involved organising seminars and study visits, training and policy development. Its aim has been to spread and apply knowledge of international standards and best practice and has often included current or former prison staff from the UK as consultants and trainers.

None of the work has been for Justice Solutions International (JSI), the recently created arm of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Indeed JSI is probably a competitor for independent consultants like me. But I think the provision of practical expertise to prison systems around the world is much needed.  Capacity building  - for example by the training of staff on human rights, the development of  needs and risk prisoner assessment and classification systems and technical assistance with updating prison law rules and regulations – is an essential part of the framework for prison reform developed last year by Justice and Prisons.

Is this something the MoJ should be doing itself? Bringing about improvements in overseas prison systems can reduce the risk of torture and ill treatment among detainees, a good thing in itself and part of our soft diplomacy. More instrumentally, it can also make it more likely that efforts to extradite or return foreign national prisoners will succeed. 

Other countries deploy their prison expertise in similar ways. Civipol, the consulting and service company of the French Ministry of the Interior has been active in assisting the penitentiary system in Algeria, a country where prisons do not meet international standards or allow any independent inspection  . In the UK the College of Policing and its predecessor bodies have long provided training courses for senior police leaders. The fact that its website includes a brochure for its International Leadership Programme in Arabic suggest it is targeting the Middle East and Gulf countries for customers. If those countries have resources, there seems no reason why they should not pay for the services they receive. Indeed they would expect to do so.


Of course, undertaking prison reform work in “countries of concern” requires particular care and a need to ensure that there is at least some level of committment to change.  Making clear that certain penal practices are repugnant and breach international norms is essential. But so too is imparting knowledge and technical skills about how to operate criminal justice and prisons in compliance with them. Human Rights Watch argue that “quiet training programmes are not a substitute for active British engagement with the Saudi authorities on human rights abuses in the justice system”. But I believe that they can complement it and make it more likely to have an impact on the ground.

I would like to see a greater reference to international human rights standards in the JSI prospectus. The MoJ might also consider introducing the equivalent of Leahy vetting- the process by which the US government vets its assistance to foreign security forces, to ensure that recipients have not committed gross human rights abuses.

Much has rightly been made of the appalling use of corporal punishment in Saudi. Yet it has developed innovative ways of seeking to de-radicalise prisoners, which Gordon Brown saw in 2008. With the EU Counter Terror chief calling for rehabilitation not punishment for returning jihadis, there may be something to learn from the Saudi approach.

Indeed in  prison reform, lessons can be learned from the most unlikely quarters. Even perhaps from the Ministry of Justice.

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