29 January 2018 - Discussions around branding, marketing and points of sale are not often associated with the United Nations family, but they were a large part of the latest expert group meeting convened in Vienna this past week to explore UNODC's options for supporting a global scheme of prison products, made by prisoners in the context of rehabilitation programmes.
An essential component of the Doha Declaration Global Programme, UNODC's work on prisoner rehabilitation has been consolidating the ways in which prison-based rehabilitation schemes can be developed and harmonized at an international level. Since the launch of the Global Programme, and as the guardian of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), the organization has published a Roadmap for the Development of Prison-based Rehabilitation Programmes. This aims to provide practical guidance for the enhancement of educational, vocational training and work programmes for prisoners, complete with guidance for monitoring, evaluation and oversight.
The consideration of a "global prison brand," or of a similar scheme to promote existing brands of prison products at national level, is the next step in the programme, and was the focal point of last week's meeting gathering country experts, civil society organizations, the private sector and international organizations.
Deliberations in Vienna represented the global dimension of both the problems and the possible solutions facing Member States. For prison administrators already running vocational training and work schemes, challenging issues are not limited to the training and manufacturing of a number of products in a wide range of sectors (such as crafts, furniture, fashion or even food). In most locations, there is a need to fight the negative perception of prisoners, and the stigma still attached to products sold under this designation, so that these products can find their place on the market.
While prisons are unable to function as private sector companies, they nevertheless are beginning to think outside the parameters of traditional incarceration norms, and to consider these rehabilitation programmes as small businesses. "Our mantra is not charity, just work. We have to stop being afraid to call ourselves enterprises," said Catherina Micolano, who heads the Socially Made In Italy fashion initiative, one of the case studies presented in Vienna, which employs female prisoners in tailoring and manufacturing products for luxury fashion brands, such as Fendi.
Other cases, in countries of varying circumstances and situations, were presented as examples of inspiring initiatives. In Algeria, prisoners who successfully carry out training and working stages are given certificates not mentioning they were obtained in jail, to facilitate employment after release. In Malaysia, challenging arrays into the food industry were deemed successful, with strict hygiene training and controls established for certification. And in Paraguay, prisoner rehabilitation programmes accompanied by intense marketing planning has resulted in securing seven points of sale for various products made inside the jails by women.
These endeavours have a variety of purposes, on a social and practical level. Suitable work programmes in the course of imprisonment not only helps prisoners' rehabilitation, preparing them for reintegration into society upon their release, but also generates some income for them and allows them to care for their families, giving them a big psychological boost. Of course, the programmes increase their skills and qualifications, and significantly enhance their employability potential.
With all the individual successes and promising opportunities in various countries, great difficulties exist in creating a single global brand or a certification, in the manner of the Fair Trade one. However, the expert group meeting discussed at length several ways in which UNODC could eventually support a global branding process, after unworkable options were set aside following a thorough feasibility study. Feasible options include a branding scheme whereby UNODC would partner with an existing international verification body, and the production of a promotional website in partnership with an international organization focussed on international trade - all to be considered in the next stage of the programme as experts' thoughts and recommendations are taken into account.
Two conclusions on which all participants agreed is that first of all, the primary focus of prison-based work programmes must remain to foster the social reintegration prospects of prisoners in line with the Nelson Mandela Rules - a focus which must not be subordinated to the purpose of making a financial profit out of prison industries. Second, the field of cooperation needs to expand between international organizations and global corporations, as the latter increasingly cater to social dimensions in their activities. "We have not seen much corporate social responsibility engagement in the area of prisoner rehabilitation and social reintegration," said UNODC's Dimitri Vlassis. "Can we change that? I think we can. I think we can direct the immense capability and the enthusiasm that corporations bring to the table in their social responsibility programmes."
The challenge is on, and the prisoner rehabilitation component of the Doha Declaration Global Programme continues.