Prisons are key institutions for strengthening justice and security and are increasingly targets of international interventions. However, prison reform in conflict-affected settings is understudied. To understand the conditions underpinning the successes and pitfalls of international prison reform, this study examines the local conditions under which international prison reform interventions take place.

By Lina Grip & Jenniina Kotajoki

Third World Quarterly

Received 19 Apr 2022, Accepted 20 Jun 2023, Published online: 25 Jul 2023

Prison Reform In Conflict-Affected Contexts: Evidence From Somaliland

Lina Grip,

Research and Evaluation Unit, Swedish Prison and Probation Service, Stockholm, Sweden

Jenniina Kotajoki,

Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden



Prisons are key institutions for strengthening justice and security and are increasingly targets of international interventions. However, prison reform in conflict-affected settings is understudied. To understand the conditions underpinning the successes and pitfalls of international prison reform, this study examines the local conditions under which international prison reform interventions take place. Drawing on unique data from interviews with inmates and staff members in Hargeisa Central Prison and Garowe Prison, we analyze United Nations prison reform cases in Somaliland and Puntland, Somalia. We find that international prison reform in these contexts not only falls short in delivering on some set objectives but also does not engage with the particularities of local conditions and contexts. Furthermore, existing reform programs embed a conflict of interest: while the beneficiaries of prison reform are concerned with the mental and physical well-being of inmates, the international actors aim to shape prison practices along international standards and incapacitate a subset of serious offenders.


Prisons are key institutions in the rule of law and are increasingly targets of international reform interventions and state-building processes in conflict-affected contexts (United Nations 2015). Scholars have conceptualized and empirically examined rule of law reforms after conflicts (e.g. Celador 2005; Eckhard 2016; Mani 1999; Sesay 2021), but only a handful of studies involve prisons (Bastick 2010; Murdoch 2015). Similar to other social institutions, prisons need to build their own capacity and resilience after violent conflict (de Coning 2020), but the preconditions for and possibilities of prison reform are largely unknown. We argue that to successfully carry out prison reform requires an understanding of the role prisons hold in the local context they are embedded in.


This article aims to contribute to the knowledge of prison reform in conflict-affected countries by improving the understanding of the conditions for international prison reform. We explore how affected communities experience the need for, and results of, United Nations (UN) prison reform by studying two prisons in two autonomous states in northern Somalia – Puntland and Somaliland – that have been impacted by UN prison reform. Due to their relative stability, they provide an opportunity for empirically studying international prison reform in conflict-affected contexts. This article draws on unique data from interviews with 100 inmates and 45 staff members in Garowe Prison and Hargeisa Central Prison as well as several community interviews, focus-group discussions, and observations in the prison settings.

While international reform interventions in conflict-affected contexts have been found to draw on assumptions about strong democratic states and focus on individuals, a growing field of research on ‘southern penal spaces’ has shown complex and dispersed interplay of colonial legacies and postcolonial modernities in countries now targets of reform (Brown et al., 2021). Such spaces include a network of formal and informal means to capture, control, and punish citizens that can be distinct from Northern penal practices (Brown 2002; Gilmer 2017). Despite these contradictions and the increased policy attention to prison interventions, international prison reform is still largely undertheorized. Previous studies have addressed specific elements of international involvement, such as preventing violent extremism (Grip and Kotajoki 2019; Jefferson 2007), and critiqued prison interventions by local governmental actors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations alike for ignoring the realities of how prisons operate in practice (Drake 2018; Jefferson 2007; Peirce 2022), but we know little about the precise conditions underpinning successes and pitfalls of international prison reform. Thus, this study examines the local conditions under which UN prison reform takes place in the specific conflict-affected contexts of Somaliland and Puntland.

Our findings underline discrepancies between international actors’ reform agenda and local perspectives. While the beneficiaries of prison reform in Hargeisa and Garowe are concerned with the mental and physical well-being of those in prison and their rehabilitation, the international actors focus on shaping prison practices to align with international standards and the goal to incapacitate a subset of serious offenders. We conclude that the prison reform objectives still largely rely on Western prison practices. Furthermore, important particularities of Somali society are overlooked. The prisons have been constructed by international actors in a context where other facilities, such as mental healthcare and rehabilitation centers, are rare. The varying pathways of individuals to imprisonment are not well acknowledged, and the material conditions of the prisoners are not addressed sustainably. As a result, prison reform may have unintended consequences such as increased control of marginalized communities and rising prison populations while missing opportunities to build interventions on existing norms prevalent in the local context that could yield well-being for prisoners.

Our article contributes to research on international interventions, prisons in Africa, and international organizations’ reform agenda. Our findings suggest avenues for future interventions focussing on prison conditions, access to justice, and reducing marginalization. The prevalence of rehabilitation-oriented norms in the studied prisons and the important role of families and communities could also be further utilized. Lastly, we hope to bring light to the experiences of some of the most marginalized individuals of our societies and those working for their well-being.

Evolution of International Prison Reform

International prison reform commenced with the League of Nations advocating for global minimum standards for penal practice (Brisson-Boivin and O’Connor 2013). However, these liberal reforms did not extend to the European colonies. Many African prisons are a colonial relic: not only were they built under colonial rule but the purposes of detentions also changed with colonialism. The prison systems introduced by European states ‘transformed collective sentences into standardized, individual punishments’ and ‘radically challenged older practices of proportional compensation based on the social status of the conflicting parties’ (Bernault 2003, 83). In Somalia and many other countries, local justice systems centered around compensation for the victim rather than punishment of the offender, and incarceration was rather rare (Bernault 2003). Still, today, justice institutions and practices encompass more than secular state processes and can include clans, social relations of obligation, customary judicial processes, or alternative dispute resolution (Jefferson 2014).

At the turn of the millennium, the rule of law was brought to the forefront of international development and post-conflict processes. The rule of law has been considered foundational for stability, democracy, and economic development (Drake 2018). While other judiciary institutions tended to more often be targets for reform, since 1999, the UN Security Council has gradually mandated peace operations to assist in strengthening host-country prison systems. Especially since 2005, corrections mandates have expanded (United Nations 2015) and activities within corrections and detention now form one of the most important components of rule of law activities implemented in peace operations (Folke Bernadotte Academy 2019). In the UN as a whole, there have been substantial operational and institutional developments when it comes to prison reform (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2023).

While far from being the only actor in international prison reform, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is a key actor in the field. Over the past two decades, the UNODC has provided ‘long-term sustainable technical assistance’ for prison reform in conflict-affected states. While such assistance should, ‘upon request’, include restorative justice, programs have taken a more technical approach (United Nations Economic and Social Council 2006), for example, working with benchmarking and staff training. The UNODC is also responsible for developing guiding documents for prison practices. It supports the ‘embracing of rules’ at policy, institutional, and staff levels (UNODC 2023).

Prison reform’s normative agenda

The aim of prison reform is often to change a correctional system to meet the standards of international human rights frameworks (Bastick 2010; Peirce 2022). The human rights-based approach and its guiding documents underline the individual prisoners’ human dignity, freedom from torture and degrading treatment as well as non-discrimination. The most important human rights framework within prison reform is the Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. Although the Mandela Rules have been suggested to be ‘a product of thoughtful grappling with both normative and operational principles across varying prison settings’ and a useful source of expertise and guidance (Peirce 2015, 263), previous research has found that prison reform interventions by various types of actors focussing on human rights and health, that the UNODC also promotes, underline individuals and rarely generate comprehensive and lasting results (Jefferson 2007; Peirce 2022). This is especially the case in countries affected by conflict, inequality, poverty, and violence (Jefferson 2022). These reform interventions often focus on technical assistance, assume conditions of liberal democratic peace, and fail to take into account prison practices and situational factors that matter the most in the context at hand (Jefferson 2022; Peirce 2022). While there is variation in the practices of different types of reform actors and the UN’s interventions may be infamous for their lack of locally formed approaches, Drake underlines that ‘every international body with influence in the functioning of prisons– such as the UN, well-meaning NGOs, state officials and scholars alike – must engage more honestly with the “truth about prisons”’ (Drake 2018, 12). Similarly, referring to some of the most impactful NGOs within prison reform, Jefferson notes that while these organizations

do commendable work bringing to light injustices and documenting poor prison practice their work is predominantly at the level of advocacy and policy development. It does not rest on in-depth understandings of the local conditions and dynamics of prison practice in the South …. (Jefferson 2007, 256)

Based on the idea that prison reform is a building block of strong democratic states, some have argued that it is not so much the prison reform itself that is faulty, but rather that there has not been enough of it, among other reasons due to prioritization of other reforms in conflict-affected contexts (Bastick 2010; Murdoch 2015; United Nations 2015). However, critics have underlined the risks with downplaying the nature of prisons as punitive controlling institutions and ignoring the dangers associated with expanding these functions. By using tactics – such as spatially organizing, surveilling, isolating, and supervising prisoners – prison institutions practice control (Birkbeck 2011). Although prisons in Africa are understudied (Jefferson 2007), evidence from Ethiopia and Rwanda suggests that resource constraints may explain the relatively low levels of control or high degree of ‘inmate self-government’ (O’Donnell 2019; Tertsakian 2008) documented also in Latin America (Birkbeck 2011). Exporting practices and resources from the Global North to conflict-affected contexts through reform could, for example, include an expansion of practices that can contribute to increased control and individualization in the prison.

Prisons are more than complements of other security or justice sector institutions and have their own characteristics while at the same time being part of the surrounding society. Reform interventions under conditions of poverty, volatility, and conflict require understanding the effects of these circumstances on prisons instead of assuming the possibility to reach democracy and good governance based on models designed in other contexts (Jefferson 2022). Interventionist policies in the Global South that seek to ‘fix’ or ‘reform’ former colonies by enforcing Western standards or institutional practices have frequently been called out by scholars as re-articulations of social hierarchies associated with colonial order (Slater 2004). The normative agenda of prison reform to re-task the role of the state, build capacity to enforce rules and regulations, and individualize responsibility and retribution is associated with neoliberal development (Kashwan, MacLean, and García-López 2019). The means – capacity building, benchmarking, guidance documents, and technical assistance – are standard practices in neoliberal governance, sometimes referred to as ‘governmentality’ (Death 2013; Phillips and Ilcan 2004). They lead to pragmatic, technocratic solutions. Such a narrow functionalist approach does not acknowledge the diversity of agency or the nature of agency–structure relations. Hence, it fails to see how reform is constrained or enabled by structural factors (Pierson 2004) and ignores the agency of the prison itself (Armstrong and Jefferson 2017). At the same time, neoliberal institutional change may alter the distribution of power and create new distributive politics (Kashwan, MacLean and García-López 2019).

The context

Puntland and Somaliland

A civil war has affected Somalia for many decades but has in recent years mainly been concentrated to southern and central Somalia. In 2012, to enhance stability, Somalia was divided into six federal states that were partly divided along clan lines. Clans are culturally constructed through claims of common ancestors, family, kinships, and regions with a shared language and cultural heritage. These sociocultural identities have become a determinate for the groups’ social interaction, access to economic resources, and political power (Mamdani 1996). The influence of clans in public institutions is partly inherited from the colonial divide-and-rule strategies (Abdi and Kon 2019).

The autonomous states in northern Somalia – Puntland and Somaliland – have experienced a fairly peaceful development, while the central government has been at war with al-Shabaab, operating mainly in the south and central regions. Both states are self-governing and relatively stable political formations, but while Puntland aims to maintain its status as a semi-autonomous state, Somaliland has sought international recognition as an independent state since 1991.

External military and non-military interventions in Somalia have for decades built on a narrative of Somalia as a ‘failed state’, a concept that has been much criticized by academics (e.g. Hill 2005). Moreover, international interventions have downplayed the role of religion in building the rule of law in Somalia (Massoud 2020), despite the fact that Islam is the state religion and a unitary force in the country (Elliesie 2012). Following the disintegration of Somalia’s state institutions, shari’a court mediation settled disputes before a judge and provided alternatives to resorting to violence (Massoud 2020). Similarly, customary law (xeer) has provided order where state structures and secular institutions have been weak, and it is described as a form of social contract consisting of fluid customs and unwritten agreements (Leonard and Samantar 2011). Currently, customary law (xeer), religious law (shari’a), and secular law coexist, but it has been argued that there is an absence of clearly defined working relationships between the three forms of justice (Interpeace and Puntland Development Research Center 2015).


The prison population in Somaliland is approximately 5000, hosted in facilities built for 4000 inmates.1 While older data is unverifiable, current estimates suggest that the prison population could have doubled in the past decade, from 2000 inmates in Somaliland in 2011 (DCAF 2017). In Puntland, recent estimates put the total prison population at 792 in the four prisons Garowe, Bosaso, Gardo and Galkayo. In the most recent count, only eight inmates were women and 245 (30%) were detained on remand (Kaalo Aid and Development Organisation 2019). The actual number of inmates may be higher. Somalia is one of three countries in the world where official data on pre-trial detainees is not available (Walmsley 2020).

Community sanctions and parole are not practiced in Somaliland or Puntland in the formal judiciary. While the Puntland 1963 Penal Code supports conditional release after having served half of the prison time (with a minimum of 25 years for persons imprisoned for life), it is not used in practice. The president occasionally releases prisoners through amnesty during national celebrations (Kaalo Aid and Development Organisation 2019). The various judicial systems in Puntland and Somaliland sometimes issue death sentences, in particular for terrorism-related offenses. Both Puntland and Somaliland have recently carried out executions, including of minors (Amnesty International 2022).

Prison reform

Prison reform in Somalia is decentralized and performed by multiple actors. Identified challenges include a lack of qualified, trained, and equipped personnel, poor infrastructure and working conditions, and weak accountability and oversight mechanisms. Currently, a joint UN agency program is underway to establish an independent, capable, accountable, and efficient corrections service (United Nations Development Programme 2022). The program targets the construction of prison facilities, capacity-building of prison staff, and rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners (United Nations Development Programme 2022, 57). UNODC has been engaged in prison reform in Puntland and Somaliland since 2009. The Counter Piracy Programme commenced from the need to safely and in accordance with international minimum standards incarcerate Somalis convicted of piracy (UNODC 2012). Furthermore, the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) has corrections advisers in Garowe and Hargeisa providing strategic policy advice and capacity building to support Somaliland’s and Puntland’s prisons (United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia 2021).

Hargeisa Central Prison is an all-male facility refurbished and officially opened in 2010, whereas Garowe Prison is a mixed-gender prison built in 2014. The improved prisons were meant to address a broad prison reform agenda, including for example human rights, sanitation, medical support, and vocational training programmes (United Nations Security Council 2014). Like elsewhere, the UNODC programs in Puntland and Somaliland focus on strengthening staff capacity through a ‘coaching and mentoring approach’ (Haldrup and Rosén 2013, 140). The program has included physical improvements of prison buildings, as well as addressing prison procedures and training staff in human rights standards. This is in line with the UN policy on prison support in peacekeeping operations, which seeks ‘to equip national prison systems with the minimum capacities required to deliver safe, secure, humane and lawful imprisonment’ (United Nations 2015, 4). Hargeisa prison in particular has been portrayed as a state-of-the-art institution. Researchers have challenged this and argued that the narrative has mainly served a ‘penal market’ where high-profile prisoners are captured and held in exchange for development aid, resulting in fuelling imprisonment in the region (Gilmer 2017, 127; Gilmer and Comerford 2019). More prison reform projects are currently underway in different parts of Somalia. Phase I of the Mogadishu Prison and Court Complex was inaugurated for Al-Shabaab-associated and piracy inmates in 2019, and new prisons will be built in Galkayo, Kismayo, and Baidoa (United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia 2021).


We illustrate the local conditions under which prison reform takes place in conflict-affected contexts by empirically examining two prisons and surrounding societies in Hargeisa, Somaliland, and in Garowe, Puntland. The research team conducted 100 interviews with inmates in Hargeisa Central Prison and Garowe Prison. Additionally, we conducted 45 interviews with prison staff and several focus-group discussions and interviews in both communities including women, youth, clan elders, religious leaders, and judicial authorities. The interviews in Garowe were conducted between July and December 2018 and the interviews in Hargeisa between February and April 2020. We combine our interview data with observations by the researchers in both prisons based on several visits between 2018 and 2020.

During the time of the interviews, Hargeisa Central Prison hosted approximately 600 inmates, and Garowe Prison had approximately 300 inmates. The sample was partly purposeful: to allow for a variety of interviewees the participants were chosen from various blocks and included prisoners both on remand and convicted. Because a register of the inmates did not exist, selection was made directly at the prison yard or from the cells. Due to the one-off nature of the interviews, we do not draw conclusions about what was not revealed in the interviews. Instead, the focus is on the information that the selected interviewees shared with the research team.

The interviews were conducted in an office space located in conjunction with the yard. Interviewing inmates, especially in Somalia or similar contexts, pose both logistical and ethical challenges.2 For safety reasons, all interviews were conducted in the most accessible and secure prisons. It should be noted that Hargeisa and Garowe prisons are not representative of prisons in Somalia but illustrate very ‘privileged’ cases, resulting from benefitting from prison reform with external assistance for several years. Several steps were taken to ensure informed consent prior to the interview. Some of the people approached declined to be interviewed; others declined to answer specific questions. However, most accepted to be interviewed. The interviews took a semi-structured form but the interviewees were also given an opportunity to raise any additional matters they chose.3


Prison conditions

Despite the focus of the prison reform on humane and secure detention conditions in line with international human rights, the majority of the prisoners interviewed took the opportunity to raise issues related to prison conditions in the interviews. Access to healthcare was commonly reported as one of the main concerns of prisoners during the interviews: ‘There is no healthcare at all in here. The food and water are poor quality. Life is very difficult in here’ (Interview, inmate 40, Garowe Prison). The staff confirmed that health issues were often the most frequent complaint from prisoners. The staff further explained that international actors had provided support for health services in the prison but the support had not been continuous.

Lack of hygiene and detergent products for cleaning were also a common concern in both prisons: ‘The hygiene is not good at all, we don’t receive soap to clean ourselves and our cells. We only get soap for our laundry once a month’ (Interview, inmate 16, Hargeisa Central Prison). Although access to healthcare and material concerns are prevalent in Puntland and Somaliland outside the prison, imprisonment itself and sharing cells, often with more than 10 other inmates, seemed to exacerbate the health concerns. One of the inmates explained that ‘as long as I am in prison I will never feel good’ (Interview, inmate 14, Hargeisa Central Prison). Others were worried about their own health or the spread of illnesses due to the prison conditions. This was despite the fact that the inmates did not generally complain about sharing their cells or living space. Relations between inmates were generally considered good. Some inmates even refer to a form of brotherhood between the inmates, coming from living close together and sharing the same situation: ‘I do feel most of the time that there is a sense of brotherhood between all inmates’ (Interview, inmate 10, Hargeisa Central Prison).

Support from families compensated for the material deficiencies. A majority of the inmate respondents said that they received regular support from family members while in prison. Material support such as food and hygiene products were normally provided by family members during weekly visits. This made the inmates lacking family support particularly vulnerable. One inmate from Garowe explained: ‘here is almost no nutrition, only rice. We get support from our families, if you don’t have any family, you are in trouble’ (Interview, inmate 72, Garowe Prison). The inmates who received no support from their families were most often from out of town and their families lacked the financial means to visit. Some inmates said that their families had cut off contact due to the inmate’s behavior, for example, substance abuse or repeated crimes. The family situations of the prisoners were diverse; while many prisoners were married with one or more wives and had children, some were minors and others had divorced because of the imprisonment. Despite the importance of the families for the prison conditions and well-being of the inmates, to the knowledge of the authors, no reform interventions had sought to include families or addressed particularly vulnerable inmates.

Lack of resources in the prisons as well as sporadic support from international actors for health interventions partly explain the inmates’ worries for their basic needs. However, prevailing prison practices also contribute to the issue. In both Garowe and Hargeisa, during the time of the interviews, there was no standard health check of prisoners on arrival to the prison, nor any medical or criminal records kept of inmates. During imprisonment, interactions between staff and inmates were often few. Thus, gathering information about inmates’ well-being and responding to their needs was indisputably challenging. One-fourth of the staff members interviewed in Garowe stated that they had limited literacy skills which hindered written record-keeping.

Building security through imprisonment

A key purpose for the prison reform programs in Hargeisa and Garowe was the incapacitation of high-risk prisoners convicted of piracy, and, later, terrorism offenses (Gilmer 2017; United Nations Security Council 2014). Today, both prisons host prisoners convicted of serious crimes, including murder, rape and terrorism. The reform has strengthened the physical barriers of the prisons, and aimed to move so-called high-risk inmates into separate blocks. The improved physical infrastructure was appreciated by both staff and inmates. Staff respondents in both prisons further described substantial progress in developing a security regime thanks to staff training and separation of inmates. The interviews in both prisons highlighted that inmates with similar crimes or sentences were housed together. Consideration was also given to the inmates’ age. However, being suspected of a serious violent crime was enough for an inmate to be placed among the ‘high-risk’ group of convicted inmates.

Important for the role of prisons in Puntland and Somaliland is that incarceration to correct wrongdoing is interpreted more broadly than breaches of secular law, to also include harm according to customary law and shari’a. A large proportion of the prison population were made up of so-called ‘rehabilitation inmates’. The rehabilitation inmates are difficult to risk-assess as they have committed crimes specific to the context, including smoking, drinking alcohol, or disobeying a parent. Some are under 18 years old. Reportedly, they are sent to prison as there is no other institution available. Although there was no crime registry in the prison, at the time of research, UNODC staff working in the Garowe prison estimated that one-third of the inmates were serving time for disobedience against their families. Females residing in the prison (there were none at the time of research) are reportedly often there for disobedience; attempting to leave the home for Europe was given as an example.4 In the prison, there is no distinction between inmates sent to prison by the court on request of their family and inmates suspected or convicted under the formal criminal code. Given the significant part of the prison population made up by rehabilitation inmates and the lack of resources in prison, making such a distinction would be a significant task for the prison.

The general separation of inmates between blocks does not mean that prisoners are always placed appropriately in the ‘correct’ block, and cells are mixed. One inmate, who was charged with disobedience against his father (for chewing khat), described being housed in a high-risk block: ‘The inmates are all in one place and it is scary to be with the murderers. In my cell, eight out of the 14 inmates that I share a cell with are murderers’ (Interview, inmate 2, Hargeisa Central Prison). At the time of the interviews, young inmates convicted of minor crimes were occasionally housed with alleged al-Shabaab members. UNODC has since then worked for the separation of minors but the sustainability of these efforts is still unclear.

The interviews from Hargeisa highlighted that prison placement procedures in Somaliland were complicated by taking into account traditional forms of justice. Consideration was taken to whether the offender’s and victim’s families had agreed on compensation for the crime. An agreement is likely to shorten the sentence length and also reduce the perceived risk level of the inmate. Hence, actual high-risk offenders may be placed in low-risk blocks, due to family influence. A prison guard explained about his low-risk block: ‘If I have a guy with a murder sentence … it is usually someone whose family and the family of the victim came to an agreement. Blood money has already been paid’ (Interview, staff member 7, Hargeisa Central Prison).

As the prison population contains a large proportion of low-risk offenders and potentially innocent citizens, there is a risk of so-called ‘contamination’. Several staff respondents alluded to this and argued that the separation of inmates into distinct blocks would prevent vulnerable inmates, such as underaged inmates and petty criminals, from being exposed to repeat offenders, violent criminals, and the risk of radicalization by terrorist convicts. However, issues with prison intake and administration processes as well as a lack of staff members seemed to prohibit implementation.

Both prisons, but especially Hargeisa Central Prison, have the ambition to work according to ‘dynamic security’. Beyond physical security, the concept entails available and trained staff with a professional approach to and respectful treatment of inmates. Staff said they ‘are trained to treat prisoners with dignity and respect’ (Interview, staff member 22, Garowe Prison). According to some respondents in Hargeisa Prison, they feel that ‘there are ways of dealing with incidents without mistreat[ment]’ (Interview, staff member 5, Hargeisa Central Prison). One staff interviewee explained: ‘They listen to us and we respect each other. They obey our rules and if they have any complaints, we take them seriously’ (Interview, staff member 9, Garowe Prison). The staff respondents in Garowe felt that the respectful relations with the inmates made their work in the prison easier and ‘minimize the risks of riots or even jailbreaks’ (Interview, staff member 20, Garowe Prison). One possible risk was the spread of extremist ideas by radicalized inmates. Staff believed it was most important to protect young offenders and those with mental illness because of maltreatment in the justice system. ‘We try to keep the prisoners who are against the government or the justice system, away from terrorists or other extreme prisoners’ (Interview, staff member 3, Hargeisa Central Prison). While the staff had come a long way in terms of establishing norms of dynamic security, the low staff-to-inmate ratio hindered any longer interactions between staff and individual inmates. Furthermore, although the relationships between staff and inmates were generally described as good, some inmates in Garowe mentioned being isolated by the staff, and a couple of inmates mentioned beatings by the prison staff.

Access to justice

The respondents frequently referred to injustices. In Garowe in particular, many inmate respondents had not had a trial, did not know their release date, and described a general confusion about the justice system. Some inmates on remand had been in prison without a formal trial for as long as two years (Interview, inmate 28, Garowe Prison; Interview, inmate 57, Garowe Prison). Another group that raised justice issues was the so-called rehabilitation inmates. A court agrees to send the person to prison following a short judiciary process in front of a judge where the family member states the harm done: ‘my family just suddenly put me in jail’ (Interview, inmate 51, Garowe Prison). The length of their prison sentence is at their families’ discretion, which causes a lot of stress ‘I have no idea [when I will be released]. It depends when my family and clan want to release me’ (Interview, inmate 34, Garowe Prison). The rehabilitation inmates are a good example of the overlap between the formal and customary systems. One interviewee who was charged with chewing khat and smoking cigarettes described his imprisonment as an arbitrary arrest, in which a visit to the court was mainly a ‘check the box’ exercise: ‘I’m not satisfied, I didn’t do any crime. They just arrested me, then I was brought to court and then I was transferred to prison directly’ (Interview, inmate 70, Garowe Prison). While respondents in Hargeisa usually had had a trial, some also described issues within the formal justice system including corruption, bribes, and a lack of legal representation. One community interviewee explained: ‘In my opinion, the justice system is very much like a prepaid phone. If you want justice you have to pay beforehand. The [justice] system needs to be reformed totally and justice should not be bought’ (Interview with a community representative, Hargeisa). The lack of due diligence meant that imprisonment was considered arbitrary and unjust. Proportionality was also a key concern. For example, those convicted of minor and serious violent offenses had occasionally received the same sentence length.

Beyond serious shortcomings in the justice process, the interviews and focus group discussions in Garowe and Hargeisa clearly pointed to the added complexity of prisons’ role in the justice process. The findings showed that justice is often collective rather than individualized. If a person is harmed, his or her entire family is considered to have been victimized. Imprisonment through a formal court order was just one avenue to achieve retribution in Puntland and Somaliland, as prisons (representing the formal criminal justice system) coexist with clan processes for retribution by xeer and shari’a. To be sent to prison was explained as a last resort when other avenues to justice had failed. The various forms of justice were captured by an inmate in prison for manslaughter: ‘I don’t oppose the conviction that I have been given because shari’a law says if you kill someone then you have to either be killed, pay money to the victim’s family or be put in prison’ (Interview, inmate 35, Garowe Prison). The interviews found that people often end up in prison after family or clan dialogues had failed to come to an agreement on compensation. The inmates interviewed believed that their clan held the key to their release from prison: ‘This is in my clan members’ hands, so it depends on when they have negotiated with the other clan, the amount they want me to pay to be released’ (Interview, inmate 32, Garowe Prison).

A prison sentence was often not considered enough to achieve justice and many inmates’ sentences included monetary compensation to the victim – either in the form of penal fines as part of their formal sentence or so-called ‘blood money’ (compensation for physical injuries to the victim) in customary court. Several respondents said that they lacked prospects of ever paying their fine, forcing them to stay in prison after their term: ‘the monetary compensation is the reason I am still in the prison even though I already finished my sentence’ (Interview, inmate 10, Hargeisa Central Prison). Imprisonment is arbitrary as inmates may be released from prison if compensation is paid or if the families can come to an agreement. The monetary compensation caused inequalities based on family/clan support and economic resources, as those who lack resources will end up staying in prison for undefined times.

Constructing large new prisons may have contributed to the imprisonment of these individuals. The capacity for imprisonment is greater and families may be more willing to send their members to new institutions that get international support. The prevalence of rehabilitation inmates highlights the consequences of prison reform in contexts where other institutions are weak or non-existent, or where the particularities of local justice processes are not fully considered.

Rehabilitation in the prison

One of the objectives of the UN prison reform ‘is to contribute to the successful reintegration of prisoners into society following their release’ (UNODC 2023). According to the UN, rehabilitation activities are considered pathways to reintegration. Both community and staff interviewees viewed rehabilitative efforts in prison positively and believed in inmate rehabilitation: ‘a person that was a thief when he came to us does not have to leave as a thief. People can change and this can be a place where they can change’ (Interview, staff member 5, Hargeisa Central Prison). Several staff members describe their own professional roles as to help inmates reform. Finding religion, giving up pro-criminal attitudes, and ‘taking life more serious’ were mentioned as positive changes in inmates observed by staff respondents. According to one staff member: ‘The best way to rehabilitate the prisoners is to treat them with respect, like human beings, and show them that the way they are behaving is against our culture, our religion, that they are pushing themselves outside the mainstream’ (Interview, staff member 3, Hargeisa Central Prison). Even though some were skeptical about the prospects of a rehabilitation program for al-Shabaab members, many believed that it would be possible to also reach high-risk prisoners with rehabilitation programs.

Several interviewees, however, raised concerns about the possibility of inmates to improve under existing prison conditions and believed that time in prison might have the opposite effect. As one staff interviewee from Garowe prison explained: ‘If a person is denied his basic rights to justice, he loses trust and might as well get angry and hateful towards the system. As the Somali proverb says, an angry man chooses hell’ (Interview, staff member 19, Garowe Prison). Staff respondents in both Garowe and Hargeisa expressed their concern with inmates being kept in prison without much to do: ‘I think it is good to have programs for them so they can be kept busy instead of walking around with nothing to do. There is a Somali proverb that says an idle mind is the devil’s workshop’ (Interview, staff member 22, Garowe Prison). Deteriorating mental health among the high-risk inmates, who spend more time in their cells and have long imprisonment times, was also brought up: ‘They don’t talk much and are more paranoid. Their long prison sentences have had a big effect on their behavior’ (Interview, staff member 10, Garowe Prison). Several staff respondents raised concerns regarding the prospects of successfully handling mentally ill persons sent to prison by the courts. ‘Mentally unfit’ regularly appeared at admission (there is no other facility to send them to), but neither the staff nor the prisons are capable of handling them (Interview, staff member 3, Hargeisa Central Prison). Thus, prisons end up isolating individuals with mental disorders from the rest of society and are required to allocate resources to their incarceration.

The large majority of inmates are described as affected by a lack of activities in prison and suffer from boredom. The only recurring activities in Hargeisa at the time of the interviews were limited basic educational classes, religious studies, and religious service. In Garowe, no formal religious services were provided in the prison. Offering basic education in prison was viewed positively but the need for literacy courses was greater in Garowe. In Garowe, one-third of the inmate respondents, and almost as large a proportion of staff respondents, had limited literacy. Religious services offered in Hargeisa and occasional visits by preachers or imams in Garowe were appreciated and well attended. There is no mosque in either prison. Both staff and community respondents underlined the need for religious education as a part of a prison-based rehabilitation and reintegration program for inmates.

While some vocational training and recreational activities were sporadically offered, they had not been sustained over time. Many of the activities were funded by international actors, mainly UNODC, although especially in Hargeisa the local authorities were increasingly responsible for prison education. All inmates and most staff respondents believed that allowing inmates skill-developing activities would be the best way to use prison time, to aid reintegration and prevent recidivism. All inmate respondents stated that they would participate in vocational training if it was offered to them in prison. Staff members confirmed their responses: ‘They are very eager to get skills and knowledge so that they can integrate back into the community. I think even terrorist convicts would participate because they don’t have anything else to do and this will help them in their life’ (Interview, staff member 20, Hargeisa Central Prison). Yet, faced with limited resources and a shortage of staff, just maintaining basic services in the prisons is a constant battle. In Garowe, staff salaries were only paid sporadically. The prison staff said they did not have the resources or capacity to organize skill-building activities themselves without external engagement. Staff respondents listed many obstacles to implementing vocational trainings, such as a lack of space, a shortage of material and staff, and frequent power cuts, as well as security concerns about inmates having access to items that could be used as weapons. A problem in the past has been that participation was only available to a small number of prisoners, and ‘the same kind of people always benefit and the same kind of people always get left behind’ (Interview, staff member 2, Hargeisa Central Prison). This reflects the UN’s focus on a subset of offenders. Besides vocational training, respondents saw a need for sports activities and socio-psychological support. Addressing values and attitudes was also suggested, ‘to teach the prisoners about a better life’ (Interview, staff member 20, Hargeisa Central Prison).


This paper has engaged with local actors in Somaliland and Puntland that are seldom heard in research and policies to better understand the conditions for prison reform in these and similar contexts. Understanding the conditions can facilitate more effective, inclusive, and sustainable prison reforms. De Coning has argued that individual skills training and building prisons are examples of interventions in conflict contexts which are unlikely to have much impact in terms of systemic change within social institutions (de Coning 2020). The results of our analysis are partly in line with this notion. Clearly, addressing norms, goals, and procedures of prisons should be part of any reform activity. However, addressing the structures underpinning or encapsulating prisons requires knowledge of what those structures are. Furthermore, our study has found that seemingly ‘non-radical’ projects, like a new prison building, can lead to a greater rate of imprisonment at the expense of traditional forms of dispute settlement mechanisms.

Both staff and inmate respondents alluded to benefits in the prisons thanks to reform. However, our results point to a lack of sustainability in the improved access to services that have taken place. The provision of healthcare, recreational activities, and vocational training have been sporadic and dependent on external providers. The temporary interventions have not had lasting results in terms of bringing about change in all targeted institutional practices.

Our findings show a partial gap in the perceptions held by international actors and local voices from the prisons regarding what the greatest challenges in the prisons are and, therefore, what ought to be goals for reform. We found that in Somaliland and Puntland, prison reform efforts by the UN have been largely driven by a goal to shape prison practices to align with international standards and to make prisons more ‘efficient’ by focussing the limited resources on the incapacitation of a subset of serious offenders (Gilmer 2017). Unintentionally, the brand-new building (sometimes referred to as ‘the hotel’ in Garowe) may have encouraged a greater use of incarceration of low-risk individuals. Quite contrary to the UN, the staff saw a general need for rehabilitation and raised concerns over the placement of mentally ill persons in prison. They saw many risks associated with incarcerating young offenders while appreciating the need for secure custody.

Our findings support previous research on justice processes in Somalia showing that it is often unclear which law applies under what circumstances (DCAF 2017). Our unique evidence shows that the justice processes are very hard to grasp for those suspected or convicted of crimes. All in all, there are various ways in which individuals may both end up in and be released from prison. Framing prison reform as the incapacitation of high-risk inmates is likely to be ineffective and potentially harmful as a security and peacebuilding tool given the current roles of prisons to accommodate individuals who do not necessarily constitute particular security risks. Increased prison capacity combined with a lack of mental healthcare, juvenile facilities, and substance abuse treatment will result in prisons hosting marginalized individuals with varying needs in addition to convicts with combat experience and lot of violent capital. The full implications of these mixed populations are unknown. However, the current situation clearly causes substantial negative exposure, and mixing offenders of different ages, sexes and risk levels may increase the likelihood of violence and other security incidents in prison settings (Clifford and Weiss 2020). The prison staff, external actors, local communities, and other rule of law actors need more information to fully understand these risks, as well as being aware of their own important role in these processes.

The study found broad support for rehabilitation as a possible purpose for prison reform in Garowe and Hargeisa and an area where there is scope for external actors to act as facilitators. The staff deploy norms associated with offender rehabilitation, providing an internal capacity to build interventions on. Interestingly, surrounding communities expect prisons to be institutions with the capacity to care for and rehabilitate citizens, and regularly send their young, mentally ill, and disobedient family members to prison. Currently, the rehabilitative purpose of prisons in Somaliland and Puntland is largely omitted from prison reform in favor of security-oriented perspectives and short-term individual-level interventions. While community sanctions and parole are not formally practiced, one could argue that the customary law deals with such matters. Fines, compensations, and agreements can indeed be viewed as alternatives to imprisonment or an early release process. Here, the formal and customary systems overlap in ways that helps contain the size of the prison population. Compared to many other African countries, Somaliland and Puntland also currently have less of a problem with overcrowding in their prisons. However, the system also leads to an unequal justice process and sentencing as well as a lack of transparency and predictability, which many of the inmates found harmful.

Prisons in Puntland and Somaliland are embedded in a complex web of dispute resolution mechanisms, where they are complementary to clan and family processes. Currently, as a part of its reform interventions, UNODC does not engage with these processes. While UNODC makes references in its policies to encompass other criminal justice institutions in prison reform programs, there are no indications of engagement with traditional forms of justice (United Nations Economic and Social Council 2006).

Actors engaged in prison reform need to more comprehensively recognize the distinctness of the social system they engage with and what it means for access to justice and the well-being of the incarcerated. This also requires an analysis of sustained material support and the needs of the prisoners and staff. Without targeted support, marginalized inmates lacking family support are likely to face a lack of food, healthcare, access to justice, and reintegration aid. International actors have the possibility to address the vulnerable position of the most marginalized individuals, but prison reform also risks enforcing group-based inequalities and injustices. In this way, the prison reforms in Puntland and Somaliland, which at first sight may seem technical and non-political, also shape social relations and distribution of power.


We thank all research participants in this study for sharing their experiences and time. We also acknowledge the contributions of all individuals who participated in and facilitated our data collection, especially Hodan Jamal and Yusuf Mussa from New Access International, Mukhtar Mohamoud from New Access Consulting, and the UNODC.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on Contributors

Lina Grip

Lina Grip is a research analyst at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service. She holds a PhD in political science from Helsinki University.

Jenniina Kotajoki

Jenniina Kotajoki is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Her research concerns international interventions and civil war dynamics with a focus on interactions between different local and international actors.


1 Provided to the authors by the Somaliland Ministry of Justice in November 2022.

2 The data collection procedure and ethical aspects have been described in length elsewhere (See Kriminalvården 2019).

3 The research and its ethical aspects have been reviewed by the steering committee of the Research and Evaluation Unit at the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, which has the primary responsibility for the research. Additionally, research proposals including the interview instruments were approved by relevant authorities in Somaliland and Puntland. In Puntland, these authorities include the Ministry of Justice, Religious Affairs and Rehabilitation; the Puntland Custodial Corps Head Quarter; and Garowe Prison. In Somaliland, they include the Somaliland Ministry of Justice; the Somaliland Custodial Corps; and Hargeisa Central Prison. Furthermore, the research was conducted in collaboration with UNODC.

4 The prison does not keep an up-to-date register of offences committed by the inmates, so this figure could not be verified by the researchers.


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