Towards more humane prison systems

prison. Photo: www.hazelthompson.com23 April 2009 - Faced with exploding prison populations, some criminal justice systems are struggling to cope. Prison overcrowding poses major humanitarian, public health and security challenges. Penal reform and the alleviation of prison overcrowding are badly needed, especially in developing countries.

Addressing a special thematic debate on the subject at the eighteenth session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Costa voiced the need for more humane prison systems worldwide. "Overcrowding turns prisons into breeding grounds for the spread of HIV and drug abuse, and into universities for crime. This is bad for the prisoners and even worse for society when these people get out - turning them into ticking time bombs, with potentially explosive results for health and safety."

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were adopted over 50 years ago. Since many States have not been adhering to these standards, the resulting overcrowding in prisons constituted a violation of human rights, he said.

Mr. Costa described conditions in Haiti, where the overcrowding ratio was 10:1, as "reminiscent of slave ships". He underlined that the solution to the crisis of prison overcrowding required political will.

States were too often resorting to pretrial detention: over 9 million people were in some form of detention, 2.25 million of whom had not been tried.  "My guess is that this is a conservative estimate. Worldwide, there are 1 million children (persons under 18) behind bars", said Mr. Costa. The number of prisoners worldwide suffering from mental illness was also disproportionately high. "Prisons are all too often a dumping ground for the mentally ill", he said.

States called for a change from a punitive response to crime to a more rehabilitative approach and supported the increased use of non-custodial sanctions and measures.

UNODC is helping States build the rule of law through fair and effective criminal justice systems, with particular emphasis on vulnerable groups such as women, children or HIV-positive people. The Office has developed projects in the areas of juvenile justice, penal reform and support to victims, and is increasingly engaged in post-conflict and vulnerable countries. UNODC has also prepared assessment tools, manuals and training modules based on United Nations standards and norms for criminal justice officials.

The programme focuses on five key areas: data management; training of prison managers; improvement of prisoners' health and welfare; reduction of overcrowding; and improvement of the conditions for vulnerable groups.

The prison reform programme of UNODC, which has a budget of $19 million, is underway in a number of countries and territories, including in Afghanistan, Guinea Bissau, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Lebanon, Liberia, Nigeria and the Sudan, as well as the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

For more information, a number of UNODC tools and publications can be accessed online: