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Correcting Corrections Worldwide: Best Practices Reforming Prisons

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Also See: Worst Offenders Worldwide

When Pope Benedict XVI visited one of Italy's biggest prisons shortly before Christmas, he called its overcrowding and degradations a "double sentence," Reuters reported. The Italian government had announced reforms to Rome's Rebibbia Prison only two days before the pontiff's visit.

The Italian government is hardly alone in its struggle to instill order behind bars: As of January 2011, 10 million people were incarcerated worldwide, an all-time high, according to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and overcrowding is "the biggest single problem facing prison systems" around the world, including the United States. It endangers inmate health and prevents prisons from functioning as they should, added an October 2011 report by the nonprofit Penal Reform International.

In short, civilian prisons everywhere are packed and problematic — and it's not just an issue of treating criminals humanely; it's a larger issue of ensuring that the entire corrections system works, keeping both inmates and society safe.

But even the best prisons don't currently work that well. For example, Norway's prisons are highly rated by the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index, but a fifth of those incarcerated in that country wind up behind bars again. The recidivism rate in the United States is more than double Norway's. And one of the worst offenders is Mexico, whose jails, recently profiled in The Diplomat, are in "a state of shambles and oftentimes a haven of crime" (also see "Locked Up But Let Loose: The Sorry State of Mexican Jails" in the January 2012 issue).

Fixing up the state of prisons worldwide is gaining steam on the back of rigorous science and data. These "best practices" rely on research, evidence-based operations and measurable outcomes — and while such academia-laden reforms may not sound especially exciting, they may be key to improving and strengthening criminal justice systems, an ugly but integral part of any functioning society.

And the issue is a huge one for the United States, home to the most prisoners on the planet. As former President Jimmy Carter pointed out in a New York Times op-ed last summer, "At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!"

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Photo: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services
The flag from the nation of Georgia joins the lobby of Maryland's Police and Correctional Training Commissions Public Safety Education and Training Center. After an international graduation, each country that trained with Maryland officials puts its flag on permanent display there.

The burgeoning prison population is a significant drain on taxpayer money, especially if not managed properly. So the United States has been turning to this notion of best prison practices to revamp its corrections mindset, while also reaching out to international partners and finding a unique niche for bilateral cooperation.

The best practices approach is rooted in Canada, but over the last decade it has spread across the United States and been adopted by major corrections and government organizations, according to one of its developers, Canadian Paul Gendreau, founder of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Brunswick-Saint John.

Gendreau told The Diplomat that best prison practices are well known in Britain and New Zealand, where he was asked to introduce the idea to corrections officials in the late 1980s. "The Scandinavian countries have always had progressive policies," Gendreau noted.

Complementing this approach are standards set by the United Nations, starting with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the adoption of rules for the treatment of prisoners in 1955. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime also helps countries build and reform prison systems with a special focus on community-based "restorative justice" efforts, and since 1999, U.N. peacekeeping operations have provided support to prison systems using a best practices model.

The United States has also embraced the paradigm: The National Institute of Corrections (NIC), part of the Department of Justice, provides training and technical assistance to corrections agencies throughout the United States and since the late 1990s has incorporated "evidence-based practices" into its efforts.

However, Gendreau and his longtime colleague Francis Cullen of the University of Cincinnati's School of Criminal Justice caution that these evidence-based interventions have practical limitations.

"It is important to realize that a 'best practice' is not a panacea," Cullen told The Diplomat. "There are no magical pills in corrections. That said, the research is clear in showing that programs that conform to best practices achieve substantial reductions in recidivism, upward of 20 percent, and that nearly all punitively oriented corrections programs are based on no empirical evidence that they work."

Examples of punitive approaches include prison "boot camps," humiliation strategies and the overuse of solitary confinement.

While the "punitive era" in corrections that started in the 1970s in the United States "may have peaked," Gendreau said, there is a lingering "lack of respect for scientific knowledge." Nevertheless, best practices are generally accepted today in professional circles — but the bigger problem now is implementation: finding the funds, the political will and the managerial savvy to put proven approaches into practice.

Interestingly, several local systems are doing just that, aided by the State Department and its international partners in a little-known diplomatic collaboration to improve criminal justice both at home and abroad.

The State Department has teamed up with local law enforcement institutions in five states — Maryland, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and California — under programs run by its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).

The goal is two-fold: enhance state-level law enforcement capabilities through federally funded corrections training, while also helping other nations such as Mexico, Haiti and Afghanistan achieve greater security through the professionalization of their police and corrections officers.

International partners tour corrections sites in the United States and learn about best practices at certain standout facilities. INL's focus on state prisons in the United States started around 2009, when the office began examining facilities with particular strengths, in consultation with the American Correctional Association and various international partners. The training is aimed at middle and upper management, an INL corrections official told us — people who can return to their own countries, adapt what they learned to their needs, and train their own staffs.

More than 20 different countries have already taken part in the INL state-prison training programs. International guests have said they found the hands-on immersion experiences valuable. Training includes facility tours, team-building exercises, and the sharing of ideas.

For example, California, though recognized as having a highly troubled prison system, was nevertheless chosen by INL for its expertise in emergency preparedness and managing prison populations during manmade or natural disasters such as earthquakes, as well as its experience dealing with prison gangs. It's already offered corrections professionals from other countries flood-simulation training exercises.

New Mexico has a prison training academy, and Colorado provides best practices in transporting prisoners securely as well as in job training. Nebraska has an innovative female offender program, while Maryland specializes in probation and parole issues, according to the State Department.

Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a number of innovative programs, in fact, that attract international visitors for tours and training, reported the department's director of public information, Mark Vernarelli. "We do a lot of training for parole and probation agents," he said, noting recent delegations from Mexico and the country of Georgia.

A new maximum-security prison in Cumberland, Md., has also hosted delegations from Saudi Arabia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories and Canada, while Baltimore's city jail and pretrial division have hosted delegations from Russia and Ukraine. Vernarelli said a number of groups have been particularly interested in programs that give low-security inmates meaningful community work projects.

"We have inmates doing oyster repopulation and tree planting, cemetery restoration, and Habitat for Humanity home building," Vernarelli explained. "Our K-9 unit was the first in the nation to breed and train its own cell-phone sniffing dogs, and we have trained a number of foreign nations' K-9 units," he added, noting that one British group wanted to learn about Maryland's special prison programs for war veterans.

Gene Farmer is a Maryland instructor and the community supervision administrator for the state's Police and Correctional Training Commissions. He headed a 10-day probation and pre-release training for Mexican prison officials last July that highlighted topics such as risk assessment and HIV/AIDS, as well as incorporating evidence-based practices. Maryland's corrections system has been noted for its commitment to science-based drive to reduce recidivism and substance abuse while increasing the employability of inmates.

Farmer's training program started at 9 in the morning and ended at 10 p.m. It featured field trips to prisons where visitors could practice new skills in real-world simulations, as well as visits to notable tourist sites and some shopping stops in downtown D.C. The training is followed by a delegation's graduation ceremony, whereby officials place the flag of the guest nation on permanent display in the training center's lobby.

To prepare for a delegation from Georgia, Farmer met with representatives in D.C. and then traveled overseas to visit Georgian prisons and "see what their needs were" in a visit funded by the State Department.

Important aspects of the programs for both Georgian and Mexican delegations, he said, were methods to identify and supervise high-risk versus low-risk offenders emerging from prison and how to make "non-intrusive" home visits to someone on parole.

Farmer and his team advise delegates "to take the ideas and concepts of what research shows has worked and make them yours" because "every country has its distinctive history, philosophy and traditions."

Also under INL's aegis, a delegation of nine female corrections professionals from Afghanistan traveled to Nebraska last October as part of a cooperative agreement between the State Department and the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, which has also hosted groups from Costa Rica and Tunisia. The Afghan contingency studied areas of particular concern to that country's women's prisons, including nursery care, prisoner classification, educational and vocational programming, as well as reintegration programs.

The training included ways to search visitors, setting up systems for keeping track of keys, religious activities among inmates, and women's health and infant care. The Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York is one of only about nine in the United States that has an infant nursery on site, a practice more common in other countries. The prison screens pregnant inmates for nursery use and babies are limited to 18-month stays, "so we try to select mothers who'll be released by then so they won't be separated," explained the facility's warden, John Dahm.

The delegation also visited the city of Lincoln for shopping and relaxation, and the local Afghan community there hosted a dinner for the group — as did, later, the warden and his wife. Dahm, a former history professor who eats lunch with inmates every day, said: "We learned a lot too, and the visit was good for our staff — an eye opener for some of them."

Meanwhile, Colorado has turned the site of a former women's prison in the south central part of the state into a new international training center that has hosted INL-sponsored delegations from Mexico, Brazil, Honduras and Afghanistan, among others.

Colorado's new corrections director, Tom Clements, recently told The Diplomat that he hopes to make "evidence-based practices the focus of the entire Colorado prison system. We're in transition right now, as we focus on data analysis," he said, noting that no one-size-fits-all approach works and that best practices must be adapted to individual facilities.

One of the areas of expertise for which Colorado has already earned distinction is the so-called field of prison industries, which teaches offenders work skills to find jobs after their release. Jack Laughlin, a manger with Colorado Correctional Industries, said the system aims to give jobs to 20 percent of its inmates, though it doesn't always reach that goal.

Colorado's international visitors are typically senior corrections officials interested in the state's job-training incentives system, Laughlin said. Programs such as the furniture shop unit offer such incentives: If an inmate-made item is returned by a customer, for example, the whole shop team loses money, but that same team can jointly earn a "production bonus" for exceptionally good work, Laughlin explained. Other programs train inmates to be fire crews or do website work. There are even a number of farm initiatives, including a large goat dairy and cheese-making site and a water buffalo program.

Another area of shared expertise is high-risk transport: getting inmates to a hospital or another prison. "We also cover case management, various custody levels and general incentives for positive behavior," Laughlin told us in a phone interview — with everything based on best practices.

Worst Offenders Worldwide

The World Justice Project's 2011 Rule of Law Index is a quantitative assessment tool of the American Bar Association that is put together by 2,000 experts worldwide, with a long list of funders that includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and LexisNexis. Part of the drive in the corrections industry to create more reliable data (see main story above), the index ranks countries on eight factors, such as "absence of corruption," "order and security," "fundamental rights," "open government" and — factor eight — "effective criminal justice."

According to index rankings, the criminal justice "top 10" nations are, in order, Norway, the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Germany and Canada. The United States is number 20, behind the Czech Republic, Japan, Britain, Estonia, Australia, Italy, Poland, Belgium and Spain. (The United States is faulted for discrimination against minorities and lower-income populations.)

In the bottom rung of the 66 nations ranked for criminal justice effectiveness are Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, followed by Bolivia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Liberia and Venezuela.


About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 11, 2014