Are we asking too much from prisons?

The Solomon Islands Correctional Service is currently offering their induction training for newly recruited prison officers, and I was invited to facilitate a few sessions on the Mandela, Bangkok and Beijing Rules.

With an eager, inquisitive and energetic group of recruits, many critical questions arose. One of them was in relation to rule four of the Mandela Rules, which states that:

The purposes of a sentence of imprisonment…are primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure…the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.’ (Emphasis added)

That sounds very good, but the recruits here in Honiara were under no illusions as to how difficult this would be in practice. Just like in so many other countries, mental health care is virtually non-existent in the Solomon Islands, and thus many people with mental disorders end up in prison. One recruit asked ‘so how can we be expected to rehabilitate and reintegrate people with mental disabilities?’ I’m ashamed to admit that I had no good answer.

It was also recognised that there are typically a whole array of social and economic factors that lead to a person being sent to prison: ‘these are often people who never had real parents, who missed out on basic education, and who suffer from drug or alcohol abuse disorders – that is a lot of problems to fix.’ And it is true, isn’t it? Rule four seems to be asking prisons, and the people who work in the correctional services, to effectively reverse decades of letdowns in a person’s life. Where the social welfare, education, and public health systems have all failed – prisons, with their almost total lack of specialised personnel and resources, are somehow expected to succeed.

To make matters worse, in many countries prisons are seen as the poor cousin, both among the uniformed services and in the criminal justice system. Justice Audits from around the world suggest that prisons are often far less of a priority for governments than for instance the police. Too often the resources available are just enough to ‘maintain security’. In such situations, prisons become little more than storage facilities where people are ‘put away’ for a certain period of time. Rather than rehabilitate and reintegrate people, prisons are then very likely to exacerbate their problems. Many prisons in the world, even in very rich countries, are known to aggravate drug abuse, gang cultures, violence and alienation from society. Such conditions will also do further harm to people’s physical and mental health.

It is of course easy to blame it all on political desicsion makers for not allocating enough resources. But again reality is slightly more complex; no politician, anywhere in the world, will gain much public support by advocating that more money be spent on prisons at the expense of all the other priorities of a government.

So, the question posed by the recruits here in the Solomon Islands then remains; are we not asking too much from prisons?

Marcus Baltzer

Induction training for recruits of the Solomon Islands Correctional Service, Honiara, January 12, 2017

Induction training for recruits of the Solomon Islands Correctional Service, Honiara, January 12, 2017