Palestinian penitentiary reform: “It’s during a crisis that a good strategy will demonstrate its value”

Leen Swaegers from Belgium and Anna Dahlgren from Sweden have been seconded by their national authorities to work at EUPOL COPPS as Penitentiary Advisers. Their job is to advise the Correction and Rehabilitation Centre Department (CRCD) of the Palestinian Civil Police at a strategic level – i.e. supporting people working within the Palestinian penitentiary system to plan and take decisions that will benefit inmates, penitentiary officers and society more widely. The advisers also provide training in international best practices.

“One of the strengths of the CRDC is that they are working hard on adopting international rules and conventions – for example the Mandela rules, the Tokyo rules, the Bangkok rules, which are minimum standards adopted at the UN,” says Dahlgren. “No-one could prepare for a crisis of this magnitude, so the most important thing is the mindset that you have when you approach it. In our trainings, we have been focusing on human rights perspectives. In terms of mindset, our Palestinian colleagues are well-equipped – they’re building these perspectives into their system”.

Asked about the challenges for a prison system during a pandemic, the Swedish adviser continues, “The biggest challenge is blocking infectious diseases getting into a penitentiary facility. You can’t self-isolate in most prisons. If it gets in, it can spread quickly, particularly if the facilities are overcrowded.  You have to have a plan for who comes in and out of the facility and put precautions in place. As well as this, almost as big a challenge for penitentiary systems around the world during a crisis is getting public support for allocating resources to correctional facilities. Prison systems need support and prisons often fall down the list of priorities”.

Leen Swaegers agrees with her colleague that mindset is very important, and is keen to underline that even small changes can make a big difference. She provides an example related to sentence planning, which she and Dahlgren have been working on with their Palestinian counterparts.

Sentence planning is a system designed to give detainees a sense of purpose, help them to understand the pain of their victims as well as analyse the underlying reasons why they got into a life of crime in the first place, in order to help them integrate into society when they leave prison. Swaegers suggests certain small changes can make a big difference in changing a prisoner’s outlook, “If you have someone who likes cooking, why not give them a job in the prison kitchen? Or someone who is good at sewing can work to repair prison clothing”.

“Reintegration should be a top priority,” continues Swaegers. “You need to give people hope for the future, while also helping the prisoner to reflect on their crime and the victims. In an ideal world, you would able to offer the support of psychologists and other experts, who are able to provide an individual mapping for every prisoner. But there are also easier to introduce measures such as a checklist for every prisoner when they leave prison related to their finances, job prospects and family situation. This checklist can serve as a first step towards reintegration".

Both Swaegers and Dahlgren have spent a lot of time supporting their Palestinian counterparts with operational plans for new correctional facilities in Nablus and Jenin. These facilities were built using EU money, but as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the opening of these facilities has been delayed. “An operational plan is in essence a guidebook for running the prison,” explains Swaegers. “It includes everything – the staff that are needed, their responsibilities, how people move around the building, how visits are organised, how transfers to court are managed, how the kitchens work, and much more”.

The advisers have also helped the CRDC introduce new methods for managing risks in prisons. This includes mapping all possible risks from high to low and developing mitigation strategies. Overall, over 300 risks were identified. “You can’t expect to develop mitigation strategies for 300 risks immediately, so we are supporting the CRDC in focusing on 30 risks, which we are looking at in detail, including the staff and resources available to mitigate them. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic, this risk assessment will have to be modified of course”.

In terms of addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, Dahlgren has experience of the fight against infectious diseases in penitentiary facilities, having worked in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak there. She is highly complimentary about the recommendations put together by UNODC and the Swedish prison and probation service for penitentiary services affected by the pandemic. “It was impressive of the UN to take the lead on this,” she says. “I wish we had had something like this during the Ebola outbreak!”

Both advisers admit that strategic planning tends to be overlooked during a crisis and hope for a swift return to normality. But Dahlgren also underlines that a crisis is when the importance of planning reveals itself, “It’s during a crisis that a good strategy will demonstrate its value,” she underlines.

Photo: Leen Swaegers (left) and Anna Dahlgren (right) with Colonel Meqdad Suleiman (centre) on Nelson Mandela Day 2019