Pedro Neves

The opportunity that emerged from chaos

For a long time, heads of correctional administrations have prepared for different threat scenarios. But this time, it was different. The COVID 19 pandemic has taken us all by surprise and hit hard, showing how vulnerable our organisations can be. Despite the lack of resources experienced in many jurisdictions, it is imperious to recognise the effort of all of those men and women who have worked tirelessly to minimise the contagion and its disastrous effects in challenging conditions. 

To all of you, “thank you”. 

Throughout your career, you may have experienced your version of Irving Zola’s parable. In the parable, a man sees someone going down the river current. The man saves the first person in the water only to be drawn to the rescue of more drowning people. After rescuing many, the man questions himself how it would be if instead of keeping jumping into the water, saving people, he would have the time to walk upstream and understand why so many people have fallen into the river. As in corrections, Zola’s story illustrates the tension between public protection mandates and the need to respond to emergencies (helping the people caught in the current) and prevention and promotion mandates (stopping the people from falling into the river). 

Taking the time to search for solutions upstream often leads us to the root causes of the problem and understanding that complex problems require collaborative solutions based on the inter-institutional cooperation between the Criminal Justice stakeholders and between these and other government services. 

Often faced with limited resources, heads of prison administrations were asked to act fast in a context of high uncertainty: organising to produce and provide protective equipment for staff and inmates; improving detention conditions and hygiene of correctional facilities; adapting and readjusting the work of staff, including the shifts of frontline staff and remote work of others; providing training and communicating with staff and inmates and inmates’ families, conveying messages that nobody was sure about and that could change in the next day; restricting inmate’s movements and outside contacts – including court hearings; suspending family visits, education and training activities; ensuring and managing testing, quarantines and isolation; caring for the sick and the dead and their families; managing the vaccination process, but as well implementing the safety and compensation measures to reduce pressure and anxiety that could endanger the security of all. 

The changes that we have witnessed are unprecedented. In some months, correctional services adopted solutions that would take years or decades to be implemented in normal circumstances. The promotion and adoption of alternative measures to incarceration – including pardons, the broader use of community sanctions and electronic monitoring; the adoption of remote work; the implementation or strengthening of technology-based solutions, allowing inmates to be in frequent contact with their families (prolonged and more frequent phone communications and video-calls), the implementation of video visitation and virtual court hearing solutions, the use of telemedicine and e-learning, among others.

We must find the time to reflect on how the use of alternatives to incarceration may endure beyond the crisis period. Find the time to rethink existing detention regimes and conditions or imagine new futures adopting new ways of working and working together. Find the time to reflect on embracing technology and the challenges of digitisation (for some) or digital transformation (for others). Don’t we do this, and we would have lost the great opportunity that emerged from chaos.

Are we now better prepared for the future? 

I have no doubts about it. But our preparedness will depend on our capacity to assimilate and mainstream the lessons that emerged from the pandemic. Going back to “normal” should be about “normalising” the new practices. We must find the time to reflect on how the use of alternatives to incarceration may endure beyond the crisis period. Find the time to rethink existing detention regimes and conditions or imagine new futures adopting new ways of working and working together. Find the time to reflect on embracing technology and the challenges of digitisation (for some) or digital transformation (for others).

Don’t we do this, and we would have lost the great opportunity that emerged from chaos.

In this new edition of the JUSTICE TRENDS magazine, we have invited the European Commissioner for Justice, Ministers and Secretaries of Justice, Director-generals, representatives of NGO’s and experts from around the world to share their views on how they’ve faced the pandemic and their opinions about the future.

I hope you enjoy reading.

Pedro das Neves

CEO IPS_Innovative Prison Systems / Director of the JUSTICE TRENDS Magazine

pedro.neves@prisonsystems.eu

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