x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Give prisoners a shot at redemption

Prisons should be a place where offenders rebuild their lives, and not just one where they are punished.

In October of last year, The National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) announced plans to set up rehabilitation centres inside Abu Dhabi's jails to combat drug use among prisoners. A week later, the NRC and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) formalised an agreement that aimed to establish a "centre of excellence" and a resource centre where doctors and experts from the Middle East and North Africa will receive training.

It was a welcome acknowledgement that addiction to narcotics is a disease to be treated more than a crime to be punished. It is a line that will hopefully be adopted by the rest of the Emirates, and the early signs are positive.

As revealed to The National in the first of a series of articles about Dubai Central Prison, the authorities are increasingly hopeful that detention is just the first step towards rehabilitation, and not just a place were punishment is meted out.

Dubai Central Prison is made up of four buildings and currently contains a medical centre, supermarket, education centre, and a workshop for the prisoners. The prison's administration is working on plans to develop an internal radio and TV station and a hospital. Drug users, however, are housed separately from those serving time for other offences.

Facilities and living conditions continue to be improved, and the transparency that was shown by the authorities in opening prison doors to reporters is unprecedented. All that must be matched by a more enlightened system for those who remain in detention. As we also reported yesterday, 200 prisoners, held mostly on narcotics charges, are on a hunger strike as they remain behind bars - despite having fully served their time - for failure to pay outstanding fines.

After completing the prison sentence handed down to them by the courts, inmates have paid their debt to society. Further incarceration for inability to pay financial penalties risks undoing all the hard work that has been invested into their rehabilitation. Prisoners must be given the hope that their good behaviour will be rewarded. And only by being welcomed back into society, and the workforce, can they begin to pay back the money owed.

Clearly the law must punish drug users, and particularly traffickers, for their crimes. But it should offer all offenders a shot at redemption. The prisoner who completes his sentence must be a better, more dignified person than the one who entered it.