Bringing about positive culture change in detention

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Prisons, like any closed institutions or environments, are places where large groups of inmates are often managed by small teams of staff. To keep order and safety, prison management is strictly hierarchical, regulating every aspect of the life of the detainees. In many ways, prisons turn into “mini societies”, with their own rules and their own distinctive culture. Discriminatory patterns of society are usually replicated and unequal power relations (between detainees and staff, but also amongst detainees) emerge. 

The way culture develops in a place of detention has a direct bearing on the conduct and actions of both staff and detainees.  When certain attitudes and values are adopted as cultural norms, they can lead to behaviour that infringes on the dignity and rights of detainees.

The APT and Penal Reform International are today launching the second in a series of analytical papers on detention monitoring: Institutional Culture in Detention – a framework for preventive monitoring. The paper looks at positive culture change from a human rights perspective. It encourages monitoring bodies, like National Preventive Mechanisms, to take into account culture as a systemic factor that plays a significant role in places of detention.  Monitoring bodies are well placed to work on positive culture change, since they have access to both staff and detainees and can identify shared attitudes and values within these places. Through their work and experience, monitoring bodies often develop an understanding of informal structures, systems and ‘ways of doing things’, which would be difficult for outsiders to discern.

‘At the beginning, we had a small number of staff who were on board about changes, the majority thought “we’ll see how it goes” and again a small number who were opposed… Our experience was that people who were initially sceptical wanted to give it a chance – if they do something and it works, they get on board. Prisoners were on board as well, because they were involved in the decision-making on things that affected them.’
Former prison director in Australia, sharing her experiences of bringing changes in a closed institution.

This paper offers a new analytical framework for how preventive monitoring bodies can detect issues related to the culture of the places that can directly affect the lives of detainees and staff. This is combined with practical examples from across the globe on the impact of culture changes in closed environments. We hope that this will contribute to  an informed discussion amongst preventive monitoring bodies and assist them in their analysis and work to prevent torture and other ill-treatment from occurring in detention.

Image removed. Andrea Huber is Policy Director at Penal Reform International

Image removed. Audrey Olivier Muralt is OPCAT Programme Officer at the APT