UNODC gathers penal reform leaders from across the globe to promote prison rehabilitation, reintegration and tackle re-offending

23 January 2017 - The issue of prison-based rehabilitation is a complex one: while prisoners typically face a range of social, economic and personal challenges that may complicate their social reintegration into society, prisons often lack sufficient infrastructure, programmes, and resources, and may even exacerbate these problems. At the same time, the vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released and return to society. In order to reduce re-offending, it is therefore crucial to actively prepare prisoners for their successful re-settlement in society through both prison-based programmes and post-release support.

Recognizing this reality, the crucial importance of the rehabilitation of prisoners for achieving sustainable development was highlighted at the 13th United Nations Crime Congress, held in Doha, in 2015. Since then, UNODC - with financial support from Qatar - has been working on a wide-ranging Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration, including on this issue.

Reflected in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), the importance of a rehabilitative approach to prison management is acknowledged as key in ensuring that prisoners are both willing and able to lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives upon release. The rules explicitly highlight that the primary purposes of a sentence of imprisonment - the protection of society from crime - can only be met if the period of imprisonment is itself used to assist in this cause.

However, in many parts of the world, national prison systems have struggled to comprehensively adopt this approach. Factors such as restrictive prison policies, a lack of suitable infrastructure and resources, prison overcrowding, and reliance on large-scale work programmes widely adopted as the principal means of "rehabilitation" are just some of the issues being faced. With this considered, UNODC has begun a series of in-depth meetings with experts and prison administrators at regional and international levels. These are aimed at developing concrete initiatives for the social reintegration of prisoners, and to gauge the needs for technical support from UNODC in realizing these goals.

Around this, a three-day meeting in Vienna kicked off this week, bringing together experts from across the globe and drawing on viewpoints from Europe and North America, the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Central Asia. A number of international organizations and civil society were also present, pointing towards the importance of ensuring a comprehensive, rehabilitative approach to prison management.

UNODC's Deputy Executive Director, Aldo Lale-Demoz, opened the meeting with his observation of the crux of the issue at hand. "Many offenders are confronted by an extensive range of challenges which - if not addressed during their sentences - tend to worsen in the course of imprisonment, and could in fact develop into serious obstacles to their social integration. In too many parts of the world, high rates of re-offending illustrate that for many offenders, imprisonment has had little or no impact in promoting their desistance from crime."

An integral part of UNODC's work under the Global Programme is the development of practice-oriented, technical guidance material to assist prison practitioners who are in the process of enhancing their prison regime. In line with this, the meeting in Vienna also offered an opportunity to review and amend a draft "'Roadmap on Prison-based Rehabilitation Programmes", specifically focussing on the areas of education, vocational training and work programmes. Guides such as this are essential in helping authorities to actively prepare prisoners for their social reintegration, as highlighted in the Nelson Mandela Rules.

The Vienna meeting was preceded by a similarly focused workshop in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where over 50 policy-makers, justice professionals and other experts from Central Asian and other countries gathered last month to discuss promising practices and existing challenges related to the management of prison-based rehabilitation programmes. Hosted by the Government of Tajikistan and organized by UNODC, in cooperation with Penal Reform International, the workshop focused on the need to strengthen education, vocational training and work programmes in prisons in line with international standards and norms.

At the meeting, Amelia Hannaford, UNODC Head of Office in Tajikistan, emphasized the broader significance of the initiative. "Working towards the social reintegration of prisoners is one of the principle objectives of UNODC in the area of prison reform. Its positive impact - both on individuals and  public safety - should not be underestimated".

Further information:

Nelson Mandela Rules

UNODC's work on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice

Doha Declaration Global Programme

UNODC Introductory Handbook on the Prevention of Recidivism and the Social Reintegration of Offenders