Many of the people in the world’s prisons don’t belong there.
Prison conditions vary widely around the world, from Halden Fengsel in Norway, judged the world’s most humane prison by Time magazine, to the severely overcrowded Rodeo prison complex in Venezuela, where a standoff between government troops and inmates has attracted international attention.
But almost all prisons have one thing in common — many of the people they hold don’t belong there. A host of reasons exist for this phenomenon.
Almost 10 million people are held in prisons around the world. Of the 10 million, it has been estimated that 3 million are awaiting trial. Some wait years before they are tried. Some become “lost” in the system.
In Sri Lanka, a prisoner was held 50 years without charges even being filed — police had been told that he murdered his father, although his father was still living and died many years later of natural causes. A judge had sent him to a mental hospital for tests to determine his psychological condition and he languished there until his release a half-century later.
In Swaziland a few years ago, a young mother accused of stealing faced 10 months in prison. After protesting her innocence, she finally confessed under duress. Because she couldn’t pay the $30 fine that accompanied the crime, she and her baby were imprisoned at the Mawelawlaela Women’s Correctional Institution.
Many of the prisoners in that facility had similar stories. Imprisoned for minor, non-violent crimes, they did not have access to a lawyer or couldn’t pay their fines. And in a country like Swaziland, first-time offenders like these are often housed with hardened criminals, making it more likely that they will commit crimes and return to prison after they are released.
Fortunately, Prison Fellowship Swaziland helped gain the release of the young mother and other women like her, but happy endings to stories like these are relatively rare.
In developing countries, prison conditions can be horrific. In Zimbabwe, where human rights activists and supporters of democracy are frequently detained, more than 1,000 prisoners died in 2009. Conditions there prompted comparisons to Dachau and Auschwitz.
Although these situations may seem extreme, the overuse of prisons is not unique to the developing world. Almost half of the world’s prisoners are held in China, Russia or the United States, which has the highest number of prisoners and the highest rate of imprisonment of any country.
Roughly one in 100 adults in the United States is in prison — more than seven times the imprisonment rate in Europe — for a total of 2.3 million. The difference isn’t due to the crime rate; it’s because the United States sends people to prison for longer sentences than other countries.
In Canada, tougher crime laws have led to overcrowding, and critics say conditions could lead to an “Americanization” of the prison system, with more potential for violence, without making the public any safer. Meanwhile, many prisoners who need rehabilitation programs to lead more productive lives after release aren’t getting them.
This issue is a common one in many countries, with more than 60 per cent of prisoners worldwide returning to prison after they are released. Many people who are sent to prison would be better served — and so would society — if they apologized, paid restitution to their victim, went through rehab and performed community service.
Texas, a strong law-and-order state, provides an interesting case study. In 2007, it faced a projected increase in prison population of up to 17,000 inmates in just five years.
Rather than spend nearly $2 billion to accommodate this growth, policy-makers reinvested $241 million in a network of residential- and community-based treatment and diversion programs. The state made a number of other changes, including expanding sentencing options for new offenses and shortening probation terms. The result: It reduced its prison population as crime rates declined.
At Prison Fellowship International, we have found that wise public policy like this can make a powerful difference in addressing chronic problems. The whole culture of prisons can change. But if success is judged by transforming offenders into responsible citizens by the time they are released, most prisons don’t work.
Dan Van Ness is the executive director of Prison Fellowship International’s Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. PFI is holding its World Convocation in Toronto this week.