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Five-year plan to rehabilitate national prison system announced at conference

South Sudan NEWS PORTAL (JUBA CITY)

UNMISS Rule of Law Officers and prison officials meet to discuss strategies to revamp prisons country-wide.

Decades of fighting both before and after South Sudan reached independence in 2011 have ravaged it within and without.

Institutions and infrastructure buttressing its legislative and judicial framework especially have been left badly shaken by the aftermath of conflict.

“We know that South Sudan has been through tough times in the past. The foundations of a well-functioning society like courts and police have been jolted by ongoing war,” says Abdul Arshad, a senior policy advisor with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) Rule of Law Unit.

This week, however, marked a historic turnaround for the fate of the nascent nation’s criminal justice system.

For the first time since inter-ethnic violence erupted in 2013, senior representatives of the National Prisons Service of South Sudan (NPSSS) and directors of prisons across the country gathered to kick-off a three-day leadership conference facilitated by the peacekeeping mission to roll out a five-year rehabilitation plan for the national prison system.

“The theme of the conference is strategic direction to transform the NPSSS delivery and accountability mechanisms. Through this conference and with the continued support of partners like UNMISS, we are expecting a lot of things to happen,” said Major General Anthony Oliver Legge, spokesperson of the NPSSS.

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In the upcoming days, working groups will be focusing on propelling forward capacity-building measures, especially through training prison officials.

“The most important thing is the capacity of the staff for the NPSSS because most of them are former soldiers without the proper qualifications for the job. We hope to have between 20-22,000 prison guards professionally trained within the next few years,” Arshad said.

Discussions will also center around the state of prison facilities, most of which have been decimated by shelling or are too antiquated to accommodate the prison population.

“Most of the facilities are centuries-old mud-made buildings that are extremely overcrowded. For example, Juba Central Prison in the capital has a holding capacity of just 350 inmates, but currently houses at least 1,500. This is the norm all over the country,” he continued.  

Ways on how to improve the treatment of underage offenders will take front-row center during the conference as well. Notable progress has already been made with respect to juvenile criminal justice with the inauguration of South Sudan’s first youth detention center in Juba. 

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“This is the first juvenile reformatory center ever to have been opened in the country. This means young prisoners will be separate from adult prisoners and will be able to better receive the attention they need,” Arshad added.

Despite its outstanding challenges, South Sudan has made huge strides in restoring its judicial system in recent years with the establishment of mobile courts in Malakal, Rumbek, and Benitu, which brought accountability to countless atrocities following a years-long dearth in any sort of local judicial oversight.

“Under the mobile court initiative, those who are charged by the courts are tried by South Sudanese judges, under South Sudanese laws, and if they’re convicted, they will serve time in South Sudanese prisons. Our work at UNMISS is to support this process. It means that those who have been arrested for crimes will face justice, addressing the issue of impunity,” said David Shearer, chief of the peacekeeping mission.

The leadership conference is an important step in South Sudan’s journey towards achieving the prosperity envisioned by its revitalized peace agreement, which will hopefully come to fruition in February 2020 with the formation of a new transitional government. 

“Brining institutional changes is not an overnight affair. It will take a very long time. But the conference represents a shift in the right direction towards meeting best international practices,” Arshad said in closing.

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