Dakar, Senegal, 15-19 May 2023 – Prisoners and those working in prisons are particularly vulnerable to any form of health emergency situation. The closed setting; a higher background prevalence of infection; unavoidable close contact in often-overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary facilities; and limited access to health care services compared to the community together make up a perfect storm. This was made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 15-19 May 2023 prison administrations from all over Africa and various international organizations convened in Dakar, Senegal for the African Correction Service Association (ACSA) conference to share lessons learned from COVID-19 and discuss how to build resilient prisons in the future. Here we highlight three key learnings for prison systems not just in Africa, but around the world.
Reducing overcrowding is one of the most important steps prison services can take towards more resilient prisons systems – if not the most important. This was highlighted by many participants of the conference, who emphasized the prevalent overcrowding rates in African prisons. Overcrowded prisons pose the health risks outlined above, but cause many other issues too. They add to the already high burden on prison staff, making it harder for them to do their jobs. They make the delivery of rehabilitation initiatives far more challenging, meaning prisoners may be more likely to reoffend upon release. The tense environments caused by poor conditions can lead to reduced safety and security.
As well as highlighting the challenges posed by overcrowding, COVID-19 shone a light on the potential for reducing it. Many prison systems across the globe, including many African governments, successfully conducted emergency releases of prisoners during the pandemic, which proved to be an effective short-term measure to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in prisons. As we work to ‘build back better’, Member States should seize this opportunity and maximize the availability and use of non-custodial measures in appropriate cases in line with international standards and norms such as the Tokyo Rules, as recommended by UNODC’s COVID-19 Guidance Note on Emergency Release Mechanisms.
Prisoner classification is the process of assessing a prisoner’s risks and needs, allowing prisons to undertake sentence planning, helping lead to improved safety and reduced reoffending. An effective classification system is essential to comply with international standards and norms, such as the Nelson Mandela Rules, and contributes to a resilient prison system.
At the conference the Namibian Correctional Service emphasized in their presentation the importance of a well-functioning classification system to cope with COVID-19. An institutionalized assessment of the health care needs of every prisoner upon entry and during his/her sentence allowed the Namibian Correctional Service to act to protect those who were particularly vulnerable.
Although not part of Namibia’s presentation, one could add that a well-established classification system in a prison as foreseen by the Mandela Rules is also key for emergency release mechanisms in times of crisis, since it allows prison administrations to better determine who should be eligible for release based on his or her personal medical needs and security risks.
The United Nations Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners – also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules – are the universally-recognized blueprint for good prison management in the 21st century. They offer the foundation for safe, secure and rehabilitative prisons that make communities safer on both sides of the bars.
Many of the recommendations made by speakers at the ACSA conference aligned closely with the standards outlined in the Rules. For example, Dr. Lawrence Acheampong from the Ghana Prisons Service emphasized that the transparent disclosure of information and seeking the buy-in of prisoners was key for his administration to cope successfully with the pandemic and to prevent the spreading of the virus inside the prison walls. Having comprehensively trained prison staff was vital in this.
UNODC’s e-learning course on the Nelson Mandela Rules offers a convenient opportunity for prison administrations to train their staff. The course is available online, is certified and is completely free. UNODC welcomes the initiative of the Member States of the conference to establish an African Network of Correctional Training Centers and stands ready to support.
While the most acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, resilience of prison systems is not only essential to respond to health crises. The climate crisis, economic crises, conflict and many other challenges can all affect prison systems, and building resilience is vital to meet these and maintain the safety of prisoners and wider society alike.