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Global prison reform a priority

Following the momentum from U.S. lawmakers, President Donald Trump highlighted prison reform in his first State of the Union address, signaling a priority to prison reform.

On Jan. 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission convened a panel of experts to discuss systemic problems facing prisoners around the world and ways to help.

“It is not a contradiction to recognize that, although some people deserve to be imprisoned, while they are in prison their treatment should meet basic human rights standards,” said Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.

More than 10 million people are imprisoned around the world, and many countries don’t have the resources or infrastructure to house criminals humanely. In Haiti, for example, prisons operate at 455 percent above capacity. And the numbers aren’t much better in places like El Salvador, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

For the majority of the world, a large prison population correlates with high poverty rates. And, compounding the problem, those incarcerated leave prisons worse off than when they entered.

“Not much good comes from breaking people’s souls,” said commission co-chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., noting the poor treatment of prisoners around the world runs afoul of basic human dignity.

The goals of prisons are to deter crime and reduce recidivism, but poor treatment of prisoners leads to the opposite outcome, McGovern added.

Philipp Meissner, a United Nations crime prevention and criminal justice officer, offered some hope that more countries are becoming aware of the need for prison reforms.

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted revised rules for the standard minimum treatment of prisoners, known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules.” These rules, named after the former South African president who spent most of his early life incarcerated, offered the first revision of global standards since 1955.

The new standards seek to improve healthcare in prisons, investigations of deaths in custody, and disciplinary measures, as well as establish independent inspections. Most importantly, Meissner noted, for the first time in international standards, the rules set a limit on the use of solitary confinement.

But troubling trends remain. A November study from World Prison Brief found the number of women imprisoned around the world has grown by more than 50 percent since 2000. Many impoverished nations disproportionately incarcerate single mothers, according to Hilary Anderson, a senior specialist with the Organization of American States.

Many women imprisoned in poor countries experience sexual abuse and have little recourse to bring their oppressors to justice, Anderson said, adding that Congress needs better data to show which countries disproportionately incarcerate women and don’t provide the care or rehabilitation they need.

Despite the focus on other countries, the United States has its own mixed prison record. U.S. jails hold more people than prisons in any other country in the world: 2.2 million people sit behind bars on any given day. Most U.S. prisoners receive better care than those in international cells but still have poor recidivism rates. A 2016 study of more than 25,000 federal offenders showed half returned to jail within eight years of release.

Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship said prisons around the world should focus on restorative justice programs. This reconciliation approach brings victims and offenders together in the same room so that criminals can take responsibility for their actions, apologize to their victims, and discuss ways to prevent them from committing future crimes.

New Zealand recently implemented restorative justice initiatives for youth offenders and is working to begin the practice with adults.

DeRoche said restorative justice, particularly for low-level offenders, offers a cheaper and more effective method for fulfilling the intended goal of prisons: rehabilitating broken people.

— by Evan Wilt

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