The UN Office on Drugs and Crime recently published a guidance note "Prison Reform and Alternatives to Imprisonment" aimed at assisting countries in developing more effective penal systems which respect human rights.

The need for prison reform in many countries is well known. The rate of imprisonment is increasing in most countries worldwide, exacerbating the acute problem of overcrowding in many prisons. In many countries, the majority of the people held in detention are awaiting trial. A large number of detainees do not have access to legal counsel and face unfair trial procedures. In addition, in many countries a large proportion of the prison population has been sentenced for minor offences. Harsh laws relating to drug offences, for example, have led to the rapid rise of the prison populations. Overcrowding leads to the deterioration of prison conditions, generates prison violence, spreads disease and fuels human rights violations.

Technical assistance provided by UNODC in the field of prison reform is based on the premise that penal reform and health in prisons are interrelated, and that an integrated strategy needs to be adopted in addressing the enormous challenge of HIV/AIDS and other transmissible diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) in prison settings. Prevention and treatment of drug dependence and the health consequences of drug use are key interventions within the scope of prison reform programmes. Improved prison management and prison conditions are fundamental to developing a sustainable health strategy in prisons.  In addition, prison health is an integral part of public health, and improving prison health is crucial for the success of public health policies.

UNODC also recognizes that prison reform cannot be considered in isolation from broader criminal justice reform. Effective prison reform is dependent on the improvement and rationalisation of criminal justice policies, including crime prevention and sentencing policies, and on the care and treatment made available to vulnerable groups in the community.  Reform of the prison system should therefore always take into account the needs of the criminal justice system as a whole and employ an integrated, multi-disciplinary strategy to achieve sustainable impact. Thus, reform initiatives will usually need to encompass criminal justice institutions other than the prison service, such as the judiciary prosecution and police service.

The most obvious example for an integrated strategy is the combination of legislative and practical measures to reduce imprisonment rates and overcrowding in prisons, with training and capacity building in prison management to improve conditions and services in prisons. Other elements that could complement such activities would be technical assistance to improve access to justice for the poor and vulnerable, to ensure the fair treatment of disadvantaged groups in the criminal justice system, while also preventing overcrowding in prisons, as well as crime prevention measures which can reduce offending and re-offending.

UNODC is in the process of developing regional programmes, covering all thematic areas included in its mandate, with strong criminal justice components, based on needs and objectives identified in each region. Prison reform programmes currently being planned and developed in each region/country will correspond to the broad objectives and priorities outlined in the regional programmes, in order to ensure that they harmonize with the overall regional strategy and complement other initiatives undertaken by UNODC in the region.

Programmes focusing on other areas of UNODC's mandate will be expanded to include prison related interventions where needed. For example, programmes on drug demand reduction and treatment in the community may be expanded to include vulnerable groups in prisons. There may be training programmes for judges and prosecutors, which can be developed to encompass prison officials, with a view to further more comprehensive interventions to improve the situation in prisons. Programmes focusing on violence against women may include women and girls in prison. Crime prevention measures in the community could be expanded to include post-release support to former prisoners, to assist them with their social reintegration, thereby reducing their risk of re-offending. Juvenile justice reform programmes often have components focusing on alternatives to imprisonment and treatment of children in detention, which can be expanded to include adults, especially vulnerable groups.

For UNODC a model prison is a prison managed on the basis of justice and humanity in which prisoners spend their time engaged in purposeful activities, such as education and vocational training, which will help them with their social reintegration following release. It is a place where vulnerable groups are not discriminated against or abused; where prison staff perform their duties professionally, in line with UN Standards and Norms; where healthcare services meet the needs of those incarcerated and where prisoners have adequate contact with the outside world.