[Dateline: Timor-Leste | Author: DPKO/UNMIT]
The remarkable transformation that the prison system in Timor-Leste has undergone in the past two years is one of the lesser known success stories of this country.
Following the escape of several high profile criminals from Becora Prison in 2006, national attention was duly turned to the lack of prison security. The notorious prison break provided the impetus for a complete review and evaluation of prison security.
Led by the Ministry of Justice, a new programme to incorporate a corrections element into the existing United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Justice Programme was implemented in May 2007.
The new programme focus was to develop correctional capacity by improving the physical infrastructure of prisons and by focusing on the prison requirements listed under the United Nations International Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners. The programme has dealt specifically with the two main prisons in Timor-Leste; the largest prison in Becora, Dili and another smaller prison situated in the town of Gleno, Ermera District.
Almost two years into the programme, the results have changed the prisons from what could best be described as mere holding-cells to corrections facilities striving to be compliant with international best practice.
The changes to the prison system will also have far reaching consequences for the way in which the nation deals with increased crime as the country develops and its population continues to expand.
“Prisons are a vital part of the entire justice system,” said Dave Bramley, Senior Prison Advisor to the Minister of Justice and UNDP. “The support that the Government has given to this programme demonstrates a real commitment to ensuring that Timor-Leste meets international standards.”
These refurbishments have included significant improvements to perimeter security, improved water and electrical systems, clearance of vegetation around the prison, proper signage and lighting and strengthened security systems. The healthcare centre at Becora Prison has also been significantly renovated and the refurbishment of staff houses in Becora and Gleno are currently underway.
In addition to the physical changes, the UNDP Justice Programme provides for the training and mentoring of prison staff together with prisoner rehabilitation and training. Programmes such as carpentry, sewing and tailoring, furniture repair and construction along with computer classes are implemented with more courses in the pipeline. In addition, a dedicated Staff Training Centre staffed with Timorese trainers is now leading all Prison Officer (guard) Training courses.
“We are helping the Government to achieve two main goals in Timor-Leste,” says Alan Swaine, Corrections and Criminal Justice System Advisor with the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). “The most visible is that prisoners will be housed in secure and humane facilities. The second goal is to ensure that prisoners have access to literacy and vocational training programmes. This not only helps make productive use of their incarceration, but helps prisoners prepare for their release back into society.”
Given the success of changes made to Becora and Gleno prisons, the Ministry of Justice is now considering a five-year strategic plan (2009-13) that includes plans to refurbish former Indonesian prisons in the districts of Baucau, Aileu, Suai and Oecusse. These smaller prisons will be used more as security installations to house prisoners in order to facilitate the transfer of prisoners to the courts. Refurbishing these old prisons will not only provide more cell space, but will also bring sustainable employment opportunities for locals.
To bolster the success the project has had to date, the UN Mission will continue to help build capacity within the prison service. “Significant training plans are in place for 2009,” explained Mr. Bramley. “The Minister of Justice has agreed that senior management training is essential to ensure that the Timor-Leste Prison Service continues in its first duty of protecting the public – and we intend on working closely with our Timorese colleagues and other UN agencies to achieve this goal.”