On the eve of a new State UN lends a helping hand

26 May 2011In what will soon be the world’s newest country, Southern Sudan, the independence celebrations are about to start. But in a place where paying jobs are few, functioning roads are fewer and the population is still deeply scarred by war, the hard spadework of nation-building is only just beginning. Southern Sudan will face numerous challenges when it formally separates from the rest of Sudan on 9 July; one of them will be to strengthen its corrections system. The nascent state’s prisons have been worn down by a lack of funding, badly dilapidated infrastructure and a military culture left over from the long-running civil war.Few know this better than Bob Leggat, the Australian national who has headed the corrections advisory unit of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) since 2006. He and a team of more than 30 others are tasked with assisting local authorities to overhaul the prisons so that they can meet international standards.About 80 prisons are in operation across Southern Sudan – some of them designed that way and others just rudimentary huts put to another purpose – and they are home to some 8,000 inmates. That number could rise drastically after separation, depending on what happens to the Southern Sudanese currently detained in northern Sudanese jails.Mr. Leggat tells the UN News Centre that overcrowding is just one of many obstacles. Juvenile detainees are routinely placed alongside adults, mentally ill inmates receive little or no support, potable water is a rarity, and people remanded in detention while they await their trial are often left so long that they have already out-served any eventual sentence they might be given.It is estimated that 45 per cent to 50 per cent of detainees at any one time have not been convicted of a crime and still await trial.“It’s very, very difficult,” he acknowledges, pointing out that Southern Sudan is recovering from a brutal civil war and that improving the quality of jails is considered a luxury when many people still struggle to eat or to live in peace.But Mr. Leggat – who has worked extensively in corrections systems around the world before taking up the post in Juba – says he has been heartened by what he calls the “reformist leadership” of the prison service in Southern Sudan.“They recognize that every single prisoner, except those given the death penalty, will eventually be out in society, and so it is worth investing the time and money,” he says. “In comparison to some places where I’ve been, the attitude is impressive. They are very keen on getting progress on rehabilitation into place.”Mr. Leggat and his staff, spread across the 10 states of Southern Sudan, act as mentors to their local counterparts, working with them to enhance policies and procedures, to improve the standard of infrastructure and to raise the skill levels and practices of prison staff.Progress is sometimes made in a two-steps forward, one-step back fashion, but he voices quiet pride at the successes, such as the recent re-establishment of a probation system for juvenile prisoners.Basic education programmes are also being set up, including literacy and numeracy classes for both prisoners and prison staff.And those efforts were rewarded last year, when UNMIS and the Southern Sudan Prison Service jointly won an international award for the staff training programmes now in place.This is helping to boost the performance of prison staff, many of whom served in the military and were only recently demobilized and reintegrated into civilian society, and thus struggled to adapt.“It will maybe take a generation or two to have people working in the prisons who have never worked in the military, but slowly that is changing,” according to Mr. Leggat.Funding remains another key problem, and UNMIS has worked with local prison authorities to encourage international donors to contribute to what can be regarded as a worthy but unglamorous cause.The efforts of Mr. Leggat and his counterparts at UN missions worldwide are in the spotlight as the Organization prepares to observe the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, whose theme this year is “rule of law.”The Day falls on 29 May each year, but the UN is marking it tomorrow with a series of events at its Headquarters in New York and at peacekeeping missions worldwide.