Behind prison walls - Review sheds light on security in Kyrgyzstan's prisons

  11 escapes and 1 attempted escape from prison have been recorded in the Kyrgyz Republic since 2009. This includes little known escapes of prisoners digging tunnels or simply climbing over prison walls, as well as high profile cases, which have caused major outrage in Kyrgyz society.

Prison walls and fences are in a state of near collapse following years of decay since the break up of the Soviet Union. The mostly dormitory type penal colonies are ill-equipped to accommodate the  wide variety of prisoners, including a large group of repeat offenders (60% of the total), an increasing number of people convicted for extremism or terrorism related offences, and more and more people serving life sentences.

Organized crime groups have a strong presence in Kyrgyzstan's prisons and seek to control and manipulate prison staff. Together with the above mentioned escapes, as well as incidents of mass disturbances, such as the riots and protests, including hunger strikes, which spread across the prison system in January 2012, this points to significant challenges in managing prison security in the country. 

In order to assess the current state of prison security arrangements, UNODC recently facilitated a nationwide prison security review. From 22 to 29 October 2013, a team composed of UNODC experts and senior staff from Kyrgyzstan's Prison Service visited seven prisons, including pre-trial detention facilities and colonies for first time and repeat offenders, to identify common security challenges and to produce recommendations for improving prison security systems, procedures, and practices.

 The security review focused on three key elements of prison security: physical, procedural, and dynamic. Physical security includes the architecture of prison buildings; the quality of the perimeter wall, fences and watchtowers; the strength of walls, window bars and doors of accommodation units; and the provision of physical aids to security, such as locks, cameras, alarm systems, X-ray machines, metal detectors and radios.

Procedural security focuses on the design and implementation of procedures to prevent escape and protect dignity of prisoners and their visitors, for example in relation to accounting for prisoners; movement control; searching; testing alarms and communications systems; key control; and monitoring of mail and phone calls.

Dynamic security places an emphasis on the need for prison staff to establish positive relationships with prisoners. This concept rests on the notion that engaging with prisoners and getting to know them can enable staff to anticipate and better prepare themselves to respond effectively to any incident that may threaten the security of the prison and the safety of staff and prisoners.

Based on these three components of prison security, the review identified gaps and challenges in each prison visited, as well as more general areas for improvement in the prison system as a whole. As a next step, the development of a national prison security framework is foreseen with clear security standards and baselines. Based on this security framework, a security audit checklist can then be developed, which would enable the Prison Service to ensure compliance with the national regulatory framework for prison security.

In order to facilitate skills development in the area of prison security, UNODC recently also published a new training manual on managing prison security. This manual is expected to be integrated in the training curricula of the Prison Service Training Centre and the Training Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which train prison staff and prepare new recruits for service in the penitentiary system. 

The prison security review and related activities are conducted within the framework of UNODC's KGZ/T90 project "Support to Criminal Justice and Prison Reform in the Kyrgyz Republic". This project is funded by the Government of the United States of America through the Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.