UN plays key role in Afghan prison reform; Pul-i-Charkhi seen as model

UN plays key role in Afghan prison reform; Pul-i-Charkhi seen as model

Tom Koenigs on recent visit to Pul-i-Charkhi prison
Afghanistan’s Pul-i-Charkhi prison, once described by a newspaper as a “kind of Buchenwald,” has become a model for prison reform in the war-torn country, said officials of the United Nations, which is taking a lead role in the difficult task of improving the detention and legal system countrywide.

“Pul-i-Charki is a great prison compared to the other prisons in the country,” said Brian Tkachuk, corrections adviser to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). “Most are uninhabitable,” he added, referring to provincial jails and an estimated 300 legal detention centres around the country.

But the Ministry of Justice, which has jurisdiction over prisons and detention centres, is determined to rectify the situation and improve conditions countrywide. “We have to put theory into practice,” Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai said during a recent visit to Pul-i-Charkhi by UN Special Representative Tom Koenigs.

The process has already begun. A law on prisons and detention centres was promulgated in May 2005 and a Ministry of Justice consultative working group was set up last year to prepare a strategy for all prison reform, including construction and rehabilitation of prisons, administration and training. The UN plays a key role in the body, which meets regularly.

However despite these successes, UN officials acknowledge there is a great deal still to do and a recent UNAMA report said the situation regarding prisons in Afghanistan “remains critical.”

“Though the reform process has been kick-started, it will be a long time before most provincial prisons and the scores of detention centres start benefiting,” said UNAMA Public Information Officer Leo Dobbs, while adding that reform of the system and concrete improvements could gain pace if the Government and donors honour commitments under the Afghanistan Compact.

The Compact, a five-year development blueprint drawn up in London earlier this year by donor countries, explicitly acknowledges the need to reform and improve the prison sector as an integral part of a functioning democracy, as well as the need to ensure separate facilities for women and juveniles.

Assistance has already come from a handful of international donors, the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States Agency for International Development and Provincial Reconstruction Teams, said Mr. Dobbs.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with Italian funding, has rehabilitated a detention facility in Kabul as well as a prison block, kitchen and visiting areas in Pul-i-Charkhi, which is east of the capital. It is also constructing closed women’s and juvenile prisons in the capital, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is building an open juvenile facility in Kabul.

UNODC is overseeing a major new project at Pul-i-Charkhi – construction and staffing of a maximum security unit for high-profile drug dealers. The initiative in support of the government’s counter-narcotics strategy is funded by Belgium, Britain and Canada.

Some provincial prisons are benefiting from the reform drive and the Ministry of Justice’s consultative working group is preparing a matrix prioritising construction needs in all 34 provincial prisons, including Pul-i-Charkhi. This will be presented to donors.

Training programmes and administrative reforms are also under way or being developed. These include courses for 200 staff scheduled to work in the maximum security unit and US-funded training programmes for all prison staff and officers. UNODC is developing a course about the new prisons law for judges, prosecutors, prison staff and human rights workers.

Despite the challenges ahead, the UN is upbeat about the future. “I’m very impressed by the spirit of improvement,” Mr. Koenigs said at the end of his Pul-i-Charkhi visit, pledging the UN’s continued assistance to reform and rehabilitation of the prisons sector.