Crossing Borders: International Corrections in Mexico City

Whether the electronic or the paper version is your preference, you probably have noticed that many newspapers offer more extensive international news coverage than in past years. The New York Times devoted the first several pages to international matters long before we understood that the value of the euro mattered as much as that of the dollar.

Correctional News has included an international section for the past several years and now boasts of more than 100 international subscribers. Global economics, not to mention conflicts, is easily acknowledged as important to our future, but do we need to care how India cares for prisoners or New Zealand manages probationers to any significant degree?

In 1998, a loosely connected group of correctional practitioners met in Canada to share experiences and trends in our respective systems. On a very cold March morning in Kingston, Canada in a moment of solidarity of purpose, New Zealand Judge Fred McElrae made a motion to form an association to give structure to our conversations. Three months later at the 50th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, the first financial contribution to support such an organization was made by the Israeli Prison Service. Correctional Services of Canada agreed to host the secretariat and the International Corrections and Prison Association (ICPA) was formed.

Later that year, we held our first international conference on a Danube River island in Budapest that was attended by approximately 100 delegates, mostly from Canada, Eastern Europe and Israel. So now, 14 years later, the ICPA is gathering again in late October in Mexico City with a registration list that will top 500. Since 1998, conferences have spanned the globe from Perth to Prague; Capetown to Vancouver; Miami to Edinburgh; Bangkok to Vancouver; Amsterdam to Beijing; Ghent to Singapore; and Barbados to now Mexico City.

Having attended all of the conferences, I can attest to something very unique about this type of gathering. The first is that delegates attend because they want hear more about how other cultures solve correctional problems than to speak of how their home country does. Right away, this sets a tone for listening before speaking. Another unique aspect is that ICPA actually restrains the number of delegates that can attend just so the incredibly valuable exchange of ideas can be fostered.

Why should officials from a parish in Louisiana or a mid-Atlantic state care enough about the conditions of confinement in Belarus to go half way around the world to attend a conference? And different from some professional gatherings, as a result of limiting the number of delegates, attendance is expected at every session.

Through the Internet, one can read something about our similarities and differences across national borders. But until one participates in cordial and constructive discourse about common problems between nations, some of which are “sworn enemies,” the commitment to learning through sharing cannot be imagined.

Some of the transferable lessons I have learned from the ICPA conferences involved the “pay for success” model that the UK has begun through a pilot program; the use of cell-based cloud technology in Belgium prisons; cottage industries that support families from Peru; electronic-monitoring technology from Israel; innovative housing solutions from Australia; a national reentry program from Singapore; new officer training from Mexico; HIV treatment regimens from Iran. The list goes on.

Once the delegates gather in over 60 well-organized workshops and plenary sessions, the geographical, political, and cultural borders diminish and a free exchange of challenges, visions, and plans begins in frank, productive dialogue. The most difficult decision is which of the seminars to attend.

Private companies account for at least 30 percent of the registered delegates. Since there is no exhibition hall, the private, public, and voluntary sectors are equally available to engage in networking. This element alone has contributed to a heightened awareness of the important role each sector plays in improving corrections.

As with any organization, sustaining the mission requires money. ICPA depends almost exclusively upon the conferences for the source of funding. The organization has no full-time staff and operates on a model of member countries (and companies) “loaning” staff that serve varying periods of time to the secretariat. This is the major reason why the program is given so much attention to make certain that topics and speakers are relevant to the current issues.
Since the formation from a group of professionals meeting informally in Canada, ICPA has expanded membership to approximately 100 countries. Two regional chapters (Latin America and North America) have formed with affiliate relationships with the ACA and EuroPris. The strategic plan for ICPA includes chapters in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa with hope for others to follow.

ICPA will remain the most relevant international correctional association by continuing to reach across many barriers and obstacles to identify individuals and groups that share the mission "to be the recognized leader for the advancement of professional and humane corrections and prisons worldwide." Much like “Doctors without Borders,” ICPA is positioned to offer training, technical assistance and expert testimony from its multi-cultural membership across all geographical borders.

Following Mexico City, the next ICPA conference will be held from Oct. 27-Nov. 1, 2013, in Colorado Springs, and will be worth crossing a few borders to attend.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP is the president and founder of CGL Services Division. He is based in CGL’s Columbia, S.C., office.