“Nelson Mandela’s message was simple. 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.”
Ms Ghada Waly, Group of Friends meeting, 18 July 2023
Vienna, Austria, 18 July 2023 – July 2023 saw the collision of two alarming trends. First, the hottest week on record; and second the release of new UNODC Data Matters figures showing that the global prison population is once again rising, having increased by 17 per cent since the start of the 21st century to 11.2 million people. While the link is rarely acknowledged, the climate crisis and the need for prison reform are closely associated: climate change impacts the vulnerable among us worst of all, and prisoners are among the most vulnerable, often subject to poor conditions, overcrowding, at risk of food and water shortage and with little means to cope with increasingly extreme weather events.
On 18 July, more than 40 Member States came together for a special meeting of the Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules on the occasion of Nelson Mandela International Day. In line with the theme of Nelson Mandela Day 2023 (“Climate, Food and Solidarity”), the Group of Friends discussed how to mitigate the impact of climate change and related disruptions on prison and offender management.
The meeting also offered the opportunity to welcome two new members, Spain and Ukraine, and to mark the signing of two Memoranda of Understanding between UNODC and the International Corrections and Prisons Association and the Confederation of European Probation, respectively.
Meetings of the Group of Friends offer the opportunity to discuss persisting and emerging challenges in the field of offender management, highlighted Ambassador Vilawan Mangklatanakul (Thailand – Co-Chair of the Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules), who opened and moderated the meeting.
Introductory remarks were then made by Ambassador Mary Wangui Mugwanja (Kenya – Chair of the 32nd session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ)), who situated the meeting within the Commission’s standard-setting function and how expressed her hope that the meeting would “showcase the need to more proactively integrate climate action into our work on criminal justice, and serve as an inspiration for future sessions of the CCPCJ, the next UN Climate Change Conference, and the UN Crime Congress.”
Addressing the meeting, Ms. Ghada Waly (Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) called attention to the latest prison data released by UNODC Data and reiterated the need for prison and penal reform.
“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.”
She went on to elaborate that UNODC’s work has started to pro-actively integrate responses to climate disruptions in its technical assistance portfolio on prison and offender management. This work focuses on reducing the scope of imprisonment; strengthening prison management and improving prison conditions; and on and fostering social reintegration prospects. In light of pressing needs, however, she called for financial support for a dedicated UNODC initiative aimed at enhancing the climate change resilience of prison systems.
South Africa was the home of Nelson Mandela, and the meeting was privileged to hear from Mr. Makgothi Thobakgale (National Commissioner, Department of Correctional Services of South Africa). The country is extremely exposed to the impacts of climate change due to its social, economic and environmental context, he emphasized – describing the impacts that have already begun, including recent coastal flooding. These challenges affect prison authorities’ ability to apply the Nelson Mandela Rules due to issues with food, health and prison conditions – yet also make the need for the Rules to be applied clearer than ever.
Prisoners around the world face undeniable threats from climate change – yet there are also reasons for hope, as prison authorities and civil society organizations take proactive steps to promote sustainability and mitigate against the effects of the climate crisis.
Mr. Jean-Marc Zbinden (Water and Habitat in Detention Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross) underlined the need to understand the challenges we are facing. We must be clear on the hazards likely to pose a risk to a given prison facility – droughts, typhoons, heatwaves – but also its particular vulnerabilities, including its size, location, construction type, population and occupancy. These vulnerabilities can, in many cases, be managed, whether through maintenance, reduction of the prison population, or other measures. Coping capacity can also be boosted, for example by ensuring that prisons are linked into early warning systems, staff are properly trained, and prisoners and their families fully informed.
Mr. Thushara Upuldeniya (Commissioner General of Prisons, Sri Lanka) described the country’s work to protect prisons in the fact of increasing food insecurity. Food inflation in the country has reached 95%, the fourth highest level in the world. As the state takes wider steps to upgrade the agriculture sector, they have also begun to engage in sustainable agriculture in open prison camps – with benefits both to food supplies and to the vocational skills of prisoners.
Mr. Michel Daccache (Chief of the Innovation Lab for Sustainable Development and Good Practices, Prison Administration Directorate, France) outlined the varied impacts of climate change in prisons beyond obvious hazards: on living conditions, working conditions, security, health, mental health and more. Yet prisons and probation services also have powerful levers for action, including transportation, energy, real estate, food, and vocational training. To promote the effective use of these levers, the French Directorate of Penitentiaries created an innovation lab for sustainable development in 2019, which has developed climate mitigation and adaptation strategies which require varying levels of resources, from the expensive down to the cheap or free to implement.
Some of the lab’s work includes:
The impacts of this work have yet to be fully understood, but an upcoming study seeks to measure effects on detainees’ health, mental health, suicide rate, violence, and recidivism, while effects on staff will primarily be measured in terms of reducing work stoppage.
Mr Daccache concluded his talk with a call to action: “Sustainable development is job intensive and puts people into jobs that are dignified. It helps offenders reentering our communities and it's also good for practitioners who will be able to flourish. But a global issue requires global cooperation.”
As the agenda items came to an end, the meeting heard from the two organizations with whom UNODC has signed new memoranda of understanding. Ms. Annie Devos (President, Confederation of European Probation) referred back to previous speakers’ mentions of prison overcrowding and highlighted the need to keep pre-trial detention and imprisonment to a measure of last resort, including by pursuing genuine alternatives to imprisonment, enhancing efforts to reduce recidivism and supporting the social reintegration process of offenders back into the community.
"Mr. Peter Severin (President, International Corrections and Prisons Association) highlighted another key element of Nelson Mandela Day: solidarity: “Let's see action. Having signed the MOU with UNODC, we hope to continue our collaboration and cooperation and make a difference together. We must ensure that those who are in custody and or who are under supervision in the community are not forgotten.”
Members from the floor spoke powerfully on their countries’ commitment to the Nelson Mandela Rules, starting with the Group’s newest members, Spain and Ukraine. Find out more about UNODC’s support of the prison and probation services in Ukraine, including the proposed project, PACE.UA. The meeting also heard from Qatar, Namibia, the United States of America, South Africa, France and Armenia.
“The profound and undeniable repercussions of climate change have for a long time been looked at in isolation from criminal justice, penal and prison reform,” said Mr.Philipp Meissner (Inter-Regional Advisor, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Section, Division for Treaty Affairs, UNODC), closing the meeting with three key takeaways. First, he highlighted the need to make Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate action a more integrated part of prison and penal reform work in support of Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions.
Second, he underlined that prisons must not be an afterthought, especially in times of crisis. “Not only does such approach create great suffering and injustice amongst those incarcerated, but it also means all of us lose in terms of safety, resources, health and cohesion in our communities.”
Finally, he stated that the Nelson Mandela Rules are more important than ever, serving as a constant reminder of and the universal benchmark for the respect deserved by all human beings, including those in conflict with the law.
As we face the reality of the climate crisis, we can return to Ms Ghada Waly’s words in her keynote address: “In the eyes of many people, prisons may seem low on the list of priorities during crisis. But prisoners matter.”