This module is a resource for lecturers  


Guidelines to develop a stand-alone course


This Module provides an outline for a three-hour class, but there is potential to develop the topic further into a stand-alone course. The scope of such a course will be determined by the specific needs of each context, but a possible structure is presented here as a suggestion.



Brief description

Week 1


  • Introduce Module aims and overall structure (Topics 1-3) as well as the learning outcomes and assessment methodology.
  • Go through pre-class exercises 1 and/or 2 and explore students' understanding of punishment, imprisonment and the local prison population.
  • Discuss the questions: What are prison trends in the country/in the region? What is life like in a local prison? Why might prison reform be important?
  • If a prison visit has been arranged before the start of the course (exercise 3), spend time discussing the field trip, and ask for feedback from the students.

Week 2

The aims of punishment and imprisonment

  • Key questions: What are the aims and purposes of punishment? What are the aims of imprisonment? Lecture to introduce students briefly to the five main justifications of punishment: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and reparation. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each justification?
  • Lecturer to then focus on the importance of rehabilitation and reformation as the primary purpose of imprisonment according to international human rights standards.
  • Discussion on the extent to which the use of imprisonment around the world has been effective in achieving rehabilitation, and whether the overuse of imprisonment violates human rights.
  • TEDx talk by Tom Eberhardt, the Governor of Bastøy prison on the importance of rehabilitation Lesson from a Governor: Prepare prisoners for life outside could be included in this session.

Week 3

A brief history of prison reform

  • Lecture and analysis on the history of prison reform around the world, dating back to the "birth of the prison".
  • Lecture and discussion on what unifies the work of prison reformers: recognition of the severity of imprisonment, recognition that prisoners are human beings, and that individuals are sent to prison as punishment not for punishment (linking with the overarching aim of imprisonment according to international standards).
  • Discussion on the extent to which prison reform organizations or projects operate in the country, and on the potential challenges of implementing reform.
  • Include exercise 4 focusing on the local and regional history of prison reform.
  • Video on Dorothea Dix and Prison Reform in the U.S. could be included in this session.

Week 4

Overcrowding in prisons

  • Lecture and discussion on the world prison population and the significant problems of prison overcrowding.
  • Key questions: What might be the causes of prison overcrowding? To what extent is overcrowding linked to rising crimes rates? To what extent can prison overcrowding lead to human rights violations? And finally, what can be done about it?
  • Lecture and students to assess whether prison overcrowding is a problem in the country and region, and whether any strategies/projects have been developed to tackle prison overcrowding.
  • Include exercise 5 focusing on the questions: 'What is the profile of the national prison population?' and 'What is life like in the local prison?' (link to the next session).
  • Videos that could be included in this session: Open Society Foundation's video The Most Overlooked Human Rights Crisis of Our Time; Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice's video on Mass Incarceration in the U.S. and Penal Reform International's video Is a prison sentence always the solution?

Week 5

Living in prison

  • Lecture to begin by introducing students to the difficulties and challenges of living in prison, exploring the sociological literature on the pains of imprisonment.
  • Include exercise 6, exploring the question: What would I have to leave behind the door of the prison?
  • Follow-up discussion on the type of regime that might help to ameliorate the pains of imprisonment, emphasizing the principle that prisoners are sent to prison as punishment not for punishment, and the importance of international norms and standards.
  • Lecture/discussion to then focus on the profile and shared characteristics of individuals living in prison across jurisdictions - the most vulnerable, marginal and stigmatized groups in society, many of whom should not be in prison.
  • ACLU's video on the Elderly in Prison could be included in this session.

Week 6

Working in prison

  • Lecture and discussion on the pivotal role of prison officers regarding the quality of life experienced in prisons.
  • Key questions include: What is the (dual) role of the prison officer - care versus control? To what extent are prison officers overworked and underpaid? What training and support is available? What do the international standards say?
  • Students should consider what it might be like to work in prisons in their region. To what extent are prison officers valued in society? To what extent are prisons stressful and difficult/dangerous places to work in?
  • Introduce students to the concept of dynamic security and the importance of positive and collaborative staff-prisoner relationships to develop safe, humane and secure prisons.
  • Finally, students should consider and discuss the impact prison overcrowding might have on the work of prison staff.
  • Include exercise 7 focusing on the question: What would it be like to work in prison?

Week 7

Implementing human rights standards in prison

  • Lecture and in-depth analysis on the development of international human rights standards since the Second World War, specifically focusing on the standards and guidelines that deal with the treatment of prisoners and conditions of detention.
  • Lecture and discussions to centre on the Nelson Mandela Rules that deal with the essential features of day-to-day prison life, and to consider UNODC's thematic Checklist as a practical tool for countries to assess their compliance with the Rules.
  • Lecture should also draw on local examples and practice to enable students to assess the extent to which the Rules have been implemented in the country. It should also be acknowledged that there are regional bodies, committees, treaties and standards that can also help assess the extent to which prison standards adhere to fundamental human rights (independent oversight). Reference should be made to UNODC's Global Strategy on Addressing Prison Challenges to reduce the scope of imprisonment, improve prison conditions and support the social reintegration of prisoners.
  • Videos that could be included in this session: Penal Reform International's The Nelson Mandela Rules: An Animated Introduction; Thailand Institute of Justice's About the Bangkok Rules and UNODC's strategic response to global prison challenges.

Week 8

Towards humane prisons and alternatives to imprisonment (plus course re-cap and review).

  • The last session will first consider various ways in which prisons can operate humanely, in line with international human rights standards through individualized sentence planning, normalized regimes and constructive activities (with reference made to the Nelson Mandela Rules).
  • It will then discuss the arguments for abolishing the use of imprisonment, as well as reducing its scope and the development of non-custodial measures as part of criminal justice reform.
  • Key question: To what extent can alternatives assist in the process of prison / criminal justice reform?
  • Students should be given time to consider the extent to which alternatives to imprisonment are used in their region/country, or consider international examples.
  • Exercise 8 could be included in this final session to debate the abolition of imprisonment.
  • Videos that could be included in this session: Open University's Radical alternatives to prison and Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, on Does Prison Work?.
  • Session to end with a course re-cap and review. Lecturers to highlight the assessment methodology.


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