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Perhaps appropriately, innovation as a subject which is formally discussed in policy circles is in itself relatively new. Reform however has been around for centuries and millennia, and even in its contemporary guise, penal and security sector reform has been around for a few hundred years and has a strong history with its own legendary champions like Peter the Great, Jeremy Bentham and Nelson Mandela. There is a relationship between the two, but what is it, and at which point do they intersect?

I write this on the balcony of my hotel room in Ashgabat. The rotating golden colossus of Turkmenbashi is facing me directly from a kilometre or so away, the jagged mountains along the Iranian border loom in the background and the skyline is peppered with cranes building hundreds of new white and gold marble palaces which have come to characterise progress in the City of Love, but nonetheless acknowledge the ancient architectural tradition of this fascinating region. The new president has made reform a priority – a new constitution was adopted last year along with a spate of new laws and a new parliament established; a new currency has crowned fiscal reforms and I am hoping that my work here will contribute to the development of a new paradigm for the penal system. In this place, the two concepts are more relevant than ever, but as elsewhere, their definitions are uncertain and their purpose not fully established.

As I was preparing for my trip here, I put together a presentation on the necessity for penal reform not just in Turkmenistan but in the UK and many other countries. It is widely acknowledged that penal systems worldwide fail to fulfil their stated purpose of rehabilitation. Prisons are overcrowded and unhealthy places, rife with drugs, violence, corruption and infectious diseases. The main thing they succeed in doing is ensuring that people who go there emerge without employment, accommodation or family links, but with new addictions and criminal connections. They do sometimes successfully contain the very small number of dangerous people from whom society must be protected, but those people account for perhaps 10% of the total, perhaps less. In short, penal reform is as necessary now as it was during the reign of Peter the Great, since as politicians are so often fond of saying, criminal justice systems are not fit for purpose.

How does innovation then fit into the context of penal reform? We don’t think of reform as necessarily being innovative, we view it as a means to make society safer, make prisons more secure, ensure that the human rights of both prisoners and staff are respected and protected, and that people who do go to prison have less of a chance of acquiring an infectious disease or an addiction. Must innovation be part of that process?

In my presentation to the Turkmen parliamentarians, chief justice, and senior Ministry of Interior and Justice officials, I argued that it must. However, first it is important to acknowledge that not all innovation is good. Some can lead to a further deterioration of something important such as the observance of human rights. Take the presence of technology in prison. An over-reliance on technocorrections in some US jails for example can mean maximum isolation for prisoners – doors are opened and shut automatically by timers or remote control, surveillance is carried out using CCTV, meals are dispensed from machines – prisoners have very little contact with staff. Any sensible prison manager will tell you that this is no way to run a jail – what little scope there might have been for rehabilitation becomes eroded, and mechanisation naturally results in dehumanisation. Other technological innovations in this sector have been even more sinister – from the gas chamber and the electric chair to modern day taser devices which are often used for torturing prisoners and suspects.

However, other technological innovations, when used IN COMBINATION with appropriate systemic innovations, have a powerful role to play in the cause of reform. I have visited, and worked with, many prisons, and have never encountered one which was completely free from drugs. However, the practice of searching all staff and visitors on entry, using both technology, and properly trained gate staff can play a major role in reducing the stream of drugs entering an establishment. This only works if those doing the searching are efficient, well-informed, courteous and attend regular training in order to keep their abilities up to date. Moreover, shift patterns must be arranged in such a way as to make the system resistant to corruption and avoid conditioning. There must be no exceptions – all staff, governors, even visiting dignitaries must undergo this process. This approach could never completely remove drugs and mobile phones from an establishment but has a significant part to play in reducing corruption and smuggling.

Other reforms are not necessarily innovative, but indeed can be a way of improving outcomes by returning to tried and tested methods. Opportunities for this often result from ill-considered policy trends. The systematic destruction of the Probation Service in England & Wales over the past twenty years or so by successive Conservative and Labour governments is an interesting case study. Currently most experts, practitioners and policy makers acknowledge that resettlement from English and Welsh prisons is rarely successful (despite the excellent and hard work of individual people in some areas). Huge reconviction levels demonstrate this. A popular notion at the moment is that comprehensive support to those coming out of prison, from meeting them at the prison gate to assisting them with obtaining employment and accommodation is a good idea which it is. There are projects underway to make this happen in some areas, from the great work of the Tower Hamlets Council to the heavily police-focussed Diamond Districts initiative whose effectiveness is yet to be demonstrated. What few policymakers and practitioners have pointed out is that this used to be the function of the Probation Service which it used to execute well. An excellent reform would be to re-empower the Probation Service to be able to perform this function once again – this may not be innovative but it would be effective and have the result of things getting better.

So, not all innovation results in reform, and not all reform is innovative. Where do the two meet?

This is where it gets interesting. Some reforms of course ARE pure innovation, at its best. These include introducing harm reduction methods such as needle exchanges and condom distribution to prison to help reduce the risk of the spread of HIV and other blood-borne viruses through intravenous drug use and sexual contact. These may need to be accompanied with appropriate legislation reform in some countries, as well as the right normative documents, staff training, information campaigns within establishments and new systems to ensure effectiveness and confidentiality. The intervention itself is a necessary innovation (usually prisoners are 10-20 times more likely to be HIV+). But all the other aspects which I described have an enormous potential for innovation too – system design, staff training, delivery methods for the information and so on.

Even more interesting is the idea that even if a reform itself may not be innovative, the process for bringing it about can and often should be. This process needs to have robust enquiry and design components. In the case of a needle exchange for example you need to know who is injecting, when, where, why, how often, what the patterns are, how people respond to searches, are there any incentives not to inject, how needles are shared, what the supply routes and patterns are, how distribution works, what other drugs and risky activities are about in your establishment and in what volumes, what the prisoners and staff think about how injection works, how much of it is myth, what the geography of the establishment is, how injecting and supply patterns fit in with the regime, timetables, and staff shifts, and so on. Given what a closed setting prison is, the enquiry phase has no choice BUT to be innovative – to ensure confidence and anonymity whilst obtaining the best results. A mixture of techniques needs to be used form fairly edgy ethnography through to persuading the authorities to share intelligence data. The design element too needs to involve staff, prisoners, medical professionals, and possibly even drug dealers (it’s bad for business if all your customers are dying from AIDS) – i.e. not just the people who will have to deliver the programme but also those who have the potential to hinder it. The process of design and involvement of those who have to deliver the programme is innovation – no two ways about it.

Here in Turkmenistan we are some distance away from coming up with radical innovations such as involving prisoners and basic grade staff in helping improve the service and perhaps re-designing some elements of it which need to change. However, my argument stays – in this setting the most important role which innovation has to play is in the process of bringing about reform. How much innovation is needed is a separate discussion, but the fact that it is needed is hard to dispute.

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