Vienna, 18 July 2023 - “In the eyes of many people, prisons may seem low on the list of priorities during crisis - but prisoners matter,” said Ms. Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at a gathering of the Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules.*
In her remarks, delivered on Nelson Mandela International Day, Ms. Waly underscored that effective and humane prisons are core components of justice, the rule of law, and the Sustainable Development Goals. What happens in prisons impacts life on both sides of the prison bars, with safe and rehabilitative penal systems benefiting public safety, social cohesion, community resources and public health.
Nelson Mandela, the late president of South Africa, spent more than 27 years of his life behind bars and became a global advocate for prison reform.
In 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules – the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners - as an updated blueprint for prison management in the 21st century.
The Rules outline minimum prison conditions, provide guidance, and set benchmarks for prison staff on how to uphold safety, security, and human dignity.
UNODC is the custodian of the Rules, and on Nelson Mandela International Day, calls for their universal, practical application via the #PrisonersMatter campaign.
In line with the theme of Nelson Mandela Day 2023 (“Climate, Food and Solidarity”), the Group of Friends met to discuss how to mitigate the impact of climate change and related disruptions on prison and offender management.
Ms. Waly noted that the most severe consequences of climate change would affect the most vulnerable – including prisoners. “Those who are in prisons often have no escape from increasingly extreme weather conditions and natural hazards, and they are also deeply affected by related disruptions such as price shocks and food and energy shortages.”
As both the impacts of climate change and the global prison population increase, these issues have grown only more urgent. This has been thrown into sharp relief by July 2023 marking both the hottest week on record and the release of new UNODC Data Matters figures showing that the global prison population of 11.2 million has increased by 17 per cent since the start of the 21st century.
Overcrowding remains the most severe challenge for sound and humane prison management, Ms. Waly stressed. UNODC’s new data, released to mark Nelson Mandela Day, indicates that out of all reporting countries, almost half are operating prisons over 100 per cent capacity.
3.5 million people, meanwhile, are being held in pre-trial detention. “By making sure that no one is deprived of their liberty unless it is absolutely necessary, we support justice, and we ease the burden on prison systems,” Ms. Waly said.
The number of women in prisons has increased by 35 percent, compared to 16 percent for men over the past two decades. Ms. Waly underlined that “these numbers warrant further attention to understand the underlying factors, particularly as women continue to face specific vulnerabilities and inequalities.”
Another priority is improving the conditions in prisons. Many prisoners do not have access to life-sustaining services, face severe malnutrition, or are deprived of other basic needs. Ms. Waly called for state authorities to ensure that all basic needs are met, including the specific needs of women and girls.
“This is a moral obligation, and it is necessary to build the resilience of prisons to crises.”
UNODC works to assist Member States to build more effective, humane, and resilient prison systems. In 2022 alone, UNODC provided technical assistance to 43 Member States on the use of non-custodial measures, and on safe, secure, and humane custody. Meanwhile, UNODC helped improve prison infrastructure and conditions in 16 countries and supported 20 prison administrations to adopt a more rehabilitative approach to offender management.
In recognition of the effects of climate change on prison management, UNODC has provided assistance to countries like Indonesia, where it supported the development of standard operating procedures on disaster mitigation for corrections facilities. UNODC further assisted in the procurement processes and refurbishment of two prisons in Nigeria to ensure continued energy and water supplies.
UNODC helped install solar energy systems in five prisons in Pakistan, while Kenya is expected to benefit from similar support this year.
Additionally, following successful precedents in Namibia and Sri Lanka, UNODC is preparing to support food security in prisons in Ghana by investing in sustainable farming projects. These projects will aim to produce food and provide vocational training opportunities for prisoners.
“Nelson Mandela’s message was simple,” Ms. Waly concluded, “every human being is equal in rights and in dignity.
Let us honour the man, his legacy, and the Nelson Mandela Rules , by ensuring that the people in our prisons can withstand the challenges of our times, with their rights and their dignity preserved.”
*Consisting of more than 39 UN Member States and other entities, the Group of Friends on the Nelson Mandela Rules works to create awareness and promote the Rules’ application. For more information on the Group of Friends, please click here.