10 lessons on improving alternatives to prison in East Africa

Prison systems across East Africa are characterised by severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. On a typical prison visit, hundreds of people can be found in ill-ventilated, colonial-era concrete buildings, the size of a shipping container or half a five-a-side pitch. Access to clean water is scarce and space so modest that people sit to sleep, knees under chins, occupying as little space as possible. Staff are over-stretched and often live in conditions not dissimilar to the prisoners.

While there are a number of people within the growing prison populations who have committed serious, violent crimes, there are also many others serving custodial sentences for crimes that, in the eyes of many, ought not to be crimes at all, such as being a ‘rogue’ or a ‘vagabond’, as well as many that are poverty driven, such as selling newspapers or fruit by the roadside without the appropriate licence (hawking), petty theft or the illicit brewing of alcohol (which particularly affects impoverished women).

This pilot innovation project was conceptualised to disrupt the poverty-prison cycle and provide a valid and humane alternative to custodial sentences and the brutal conditions that they can lead to, thereby reducing the unnecessary use of imprisonment in East Africa.

The focus was on community service orders (CSOs) as an alternative to prison and pilot areas were identified where a range of project activities were undertaken by the responsible government departments in each country, to achieve three objectives:

increase the number of CSOs made by courts;
raise levels of compliance so that CSOs are carried out to completion;
improve public knowledge of and confidence in CSOs as an alternative to short prison sentences.

The results of the project were broadly very positive, as noted in the ExTRA Project final evaluation report, yet as an explorative study, it was the lessons learned that we focused on.

 For the full evaluation report click here (Insert link)

For the full evaluation report click here (Insert link)

LESSON 1 – LAWS MUST BE MODERNISED FOR EFFECTIVE CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Community service provides a valid alternative to prison for those committing petty and poverty-related crimes. However, during the course of the project, PRI came across a number of people in prison, who had been convicted of crimes that can be considered archaic and unnecessary. Convicting people of crimes such as being a ‘rogue and vagabond’ or ‘idleness’, or for not following government instructions to install a toilet in their home, only serve to criminalise the poorest in society for the situation that they are in.

The community does not benefit from sentencing a person for such negligible acts and it may even increase the poverty of that individual and her/his family. It may also be considered to be ‘net-widening’, which disrupts the effectiveness of the justice system.

LESSON 2 – MORE EFFECTIVE AND TANGIBLE COMMUNITY SERVICE PLACEMENTS ARE NEEDED

The project team encountered some good examples of CSO placements, including reforestation, waste disposal and poultry farming, where offenders developed skills they could use after completion. However, these tend to be the exceptions and too many still involve cleaning and slashing (cutting grass with a machete), which offer little opportunity for rehabilitation, reparation or learning of new skills. Interviews with key stakeholders revealed that without more tangible outcomes, public recognition of the work is limited. One of the barriers to diversification has been the lack of resources and tools available. Responsible departments should therefore create partnerships with other areas of government or with NGOs to provide the necessary equipment.

LESSON 3: CREATIVE SOLUTIONS CAN BE FOUND TO ADDRESS HUMAN CAPACITY ISSUES

The project achieved some significant successes, including increases in numbers of Community Service Orders (CSOs) issued in Tanzania (104%) and Uganda (58%) and compliance levels above 90% in all countries. However, there are clear limits to what Probation and Community Service departments can do without more capacity. To produce high-quality outcomes, government departments must be adequately staffed, especially when the aim is to increase the number of CSOs being managed. Innovative solutions have been developed, e.g. the use of Community Service Department Volunteers (CSDVs) and partnerships with other government bodies at the local level, some of which had been strengthened by the ExTRA project activities.

LESSON 4 – GETTING LOCAL LEADER AND COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION IS IMPORTANT

In many areas and especially in the more rural regions, local leaders know every member of their community and have great power to influence opinions. A case study in the evaluation (page 53) demonstrates how, with the right training, a local chief can move from being an obstacle to reform to becoming a great advocate for community service. Including the local community in decisions about what public works offenders complete increases participation in and ownership of the justice system. It is important that the local Probation and Community Service departments engage the local community to develop useful and efficient projects where the outcomes are visible and communicated to the public. Such activities are currently limited and there is great scope to expand on these.

LESSON 5 – FEEDBACK MECHANISMS NEED TO BE CREATED AND SUSTAINED

One reason that key stakeholders and the public can be skeptical about CSOs is that they often do not hear about the results. They don’t always realise that the school pit latrine was dug by community service offenders, the streets cleaned or trees planted or that the absconding rate is actually very low. With prison, people generally feel reassured that an offender has received a sentence and will be released when the sentence has been served. Regular feedback in two directions is therefore important:

To magistrates through regular updates, to allow them to make more informed decisions on whether to issue CSOs.
To the local community, including through the media and as part of a two-way conversation at local meetings.

LESSON 6 – SOME STAKEHOLDERS ARE HARDER TO PERSUADE AND REQUIRE AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH

Most participants left the training and workshops with a much more positive view of community service than when they began. However, there is a minority of stakeholders who are resistant to reform. An alternative approach is therefore needed to change the perceptions of this group. During a scoping visit to Malawi, PRI staff witnessed the power of exposure visits (where magistrates and prosecutors are taken to the heavily congested prisons to see the overburdened system and poor living conditions). Many participants appeared visibly moved, and the long-term effects of such an approach on their decision making is worthy of further research.

LESSON 7 – PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT CAN CHANGE BEHAVIOUR AS MUCH AS PERSUASION

The introduction of targets for individual magistrates to complete a set number of cases and, in Uganda at least, the incentives for the police to produce successful arrests (i.e. ones that lead to conviction) appear to have encouraged the use of CSOs. During the evaluation visits, several stakeholders remarked that where community service was seen to speed up the process to achieve a conviction, parties were more likely to engage in the process.

LESSON 8 – DATA COLLECTION METHODS REQUIRE INVESTMENT

It is clear that accurate data and consistent, reliable methods of collecting it are important for a host of reasons. Chief among these are to provide the evidence to be able to understand whether the community service as an intervention is working at all, but also so that departments can use positive trends to advocate for greater budget from central governments, to identify trends and measure progress against key targets. In this context, PRI found that data collection methods differed between and within countries and in many cases records were hand written and not easily accessible. In some instances, data was collected by researchers directly from court records, which is the ideal; however, a range of other less reliable methods are also used. In response to the issue during the project, PRI designed a new collection method, which proved superior to previous methods. Similar projects should develop specific data-gathering tools and procedures to suit their country context.

LESSON 9 – NUANCED INDICATORS ARE NEEDED TO MEASURE PROGRESS

Through this pilot project, PRI learned a lot about identifying the right indicators to measure the performance of a community service system. At the mid-term stage, it had become clear to us that outcome indicators we were using were not the best indicators for tracking the results of community service projects. For example, the ‘number of CSOs issued’ is not the best indicator to measure the performance of a community service project because it is too susceptible to external factors (e.g. changes in crime rates and pre-trial detention) and does not consider the length of sentence. To get around this, PRI developed two new indicators which provide better measurement of progress in magistrates’ decision-making, which similar projects may find useful. (More information about these can be found in the evaluation report.)

LESSON 10 – FURTHER ADAPTATION OF THE EXTRA MODEL MUST BE CONTEXT SPECIFIC

While there were small differences across each country, this project was piloted with the same basic design and the same targets were in place for each. This was an appropriate way of testing an initial model and allowed for comparison, yet through this learning process we have discovered different aspects that are unique to each context and any further activities in each of implementing countries should bear these in mind.