Fitting back into the community

8 Apr 2013

Fitting back into the community

As she cut and stitched cloth, Habib could have been any woman in a tailoring school, trying to learn a skill that would be useful in the future.That she might one day earn a living from tailoring was hardly debatable. It was the location of the school in Juba Central Prison that made her different from other students.

The 23-year old woman was serving a ten-year sentence and facing a fine of 30,000 South Sudanese pounds (about $7,800) after being convicted of manslaughter. One day, she had poured benzene on her husband and he had died from his burns. It was an act she regretted.

"I wish that training (in different skills) would be availed to all inmates here so that when they leave... they can fit back in the community outside ... and not think of committing crimes again," she said.

Habib's and similar stories from the jail's inmates are summarized in Section 43 of the South Sudan National Prisons Act: "There shall be taken into consideration in treating prisoners, the Principle that prison is a place of reform and upbringing for good citizenship."

"We need to move from simply locking up offenders to providing rehabilitation," said South Sudan National Prisons Director General Abel Makoi Wol.

Although the service faced many challenges, the ultimate solution was introducing paralegal systems and rehabilitation, rather than building more or larger prisons. With support from partners, the prisons service was taking steps into that direction.

"How to better the systems in this new nation is a collective effort and includes giving prisoners the opportunity to correct their ways," said UNMISS chief Hilde F. Johnson at a recent seminar on "Strategies to Attaining a Humane and Accountable Prison System".

The UNMISS Corrections Advisory Section aims to assist the government in establishing a safe, secure and humane prison system by providing advice and other assistance in cooperation with international partners. It also contributes to mobilizing resources for long-term capacity building and infrastructure development.

In many of 26 locations across the country, UNMISS Corrections Advisors are working with prisons to develop agricultural projects, which would be useful in averting crises, as well as enhancing the skills of both prisoners and prisons officers.

In Northern Bahr El-Ghazal State in November, for instance, the Director of Aweil Central Prison revealed that the prison had experienced a total lack of food for three days, and authorities had been using their own funds to provide the inmates with food.

"We decided to focus on agriculture for several reasons," said UNMISS Prisons Programs Manager Robert Leggat. "It would help the prisons to be self-sufficient in producing their own food and not have to wait for government support."

Other commonly reported challenges were poor nutrition and lack of medical care for inmates, particularly affecting pregnant women and infants living in jail with their mothers.

"There is no reason why we cannot have prisons keeping some cows for milk or digging fish ponds," said General Wol. "We can already see the benefits of agriculture from the gardens that we are operating, and at the same time, we give them skills."

"We are not just looking at small-scale agriculture," said Mr. Leggat. "As we advise the prisons service on their long-term plans, we are also trying to get the government to see this both as a boost to food security and as a viable commercial project."

"As South Sudanese, we are pastoralists and also dependent on agriculture. All these are skills that prisoners can take with them when they are released," he added. "Vocational training should be the basis of rehabilitation in any corrections institution."

The sentiment was echoed by Lakes State Director of Prisons Bol Ador Ader at the end of 2012, as UNMISS Corrections Advisors and Guarantee Prisoners (those about to be freed) began to harvest 100 hectares of sorghum and maize at Rumbek Central Prison.

Mr. Ader revealed that 90 per cent of inmates in the state were youth, who continued committing crimes because they lacked careers.

"If we can create vocational centres within the prison for inmates across the country, we will not just be fighting crime, but also improving manpower development and stopping our youth from being vulnerable," he said.