Insights and Analysis

Not all Sun, Sea, and Sand: Reforming Prisons in the Maldives

January 28, 2015

By Johann Rebert, Nabeel Salie

The Maldives is an archipelago known foremost for its pristine beaches, exclusive resorts, and a vacation hideaway for the super-rich. In development circles the country is better known as a laboratory for all things climate-change related. Tourism and fishing have brought significant income inflows in the last 30 years, and the last decade has seen the aid sector pouring in substantial resources toward promoting everything from solar power to hydroponics.

According to the most recent statistics from the World Bank, in 2013 the island chains’ GDP per capita stood at $6,500 with a growth rate of 5.5 percent in a population of approximately 352,000, of which approximately 45 percent are under 25.

Statistically the picture looks good. The realities, however, are quite different, with income disparity on the rise, environmental problems such as access to clean water and lack of disaster preparedness, challenges to governance that have resulted in mismanagement of resources, and social issues such as drug addiction and gang violence that threaten to damage the delicate Maldivian social fabric.

Since 2011, The Asia Foundation has been supporting research and governance programs that have addressed problems primarily faced by youth in the Maldives – the largest segment of its population. A Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male (the capital) revealed that issues faced by youth revolve around disparity, which is significant between youth from Male and youth coming to the capital from smaller and poorer islands. The lack of attractive and new economic opportunities – unemployment levels among youth are over 26 percent – to sustain expensive lifestyles also leads to gang membership. The research showed that vulnerable youth look for alternative means to fulfill their aspirations, such as organized crime and drug peddling starting at a young age, and which lands a lot of these youth in prison.

The Asia Foundation has been helping to advance prison reform in the country’s two main prisons: Maafushi (High Security) and Himaafushi (Low Security) for the last several years. The entire prison population in the Maldives is around 1,000 inmates, which is 20 percent more than the prisons can house. The average age is 25, and about 70 percent of inmates have been detained for committing a drug-related crime. Around 3 percent of the prison population is women. Conducted in collaboration with the Maldives Correctional Service (MCS) and scholars from the Centre for Holy Quran, The Asia Foundation’s reform work focuses on providing values-based counseling to inmates at both prisons with the aim of supporting effective reintegration, and providing vocational education in the area of high value ornamental wood carving for a target group of those most vulnerable at Maafushi Prison.

Maldives prison

Above, prison inmates participate in values-based counseling which is designed to support effective reintegration.

According to Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Hassan Zilaal, who has spearheaded prison reform programs since 2007, the woodcarving program has generated the most interest of the trainings provided to date and will provide a tangible skill set and income-generating opportunities to inmates to mitigate the risk of reverting back to drug dealing or gang association upon release. These sentiments were echoed by the Minister of Home Affairs, Umar Nasir, who feared that without such initiatives inmates were highly vulnerable to falling back on old ways, particularly in an economy where there is a lack of attractive jobs for youth.

Deputy Commissioner Zilaal recently shared with us a number of issues faced in Maldivian prisons including over-crowding, challenges with ensuring segregation (hardened criminals and petty criminals occupying same cells), the need for better health care facilities, and insufficient human resource needs such as training; all stemming from the limited availability of resources.

In the next nine months The Asia Foundation plans to provide stress management training to law enforcement personnel from the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and MCS to support and strengthen warden-inmate interaction and to conduct an assessment for improving the prison management system, drawing from the Foundation experience of prison reform initiatives in Indonesia.

With the potential for inmate numbers to increase in Maldivian prisons it is crucial that reform programs are in place to effectively rehabilitate, re-skill and reintegrate these young people back into society. The MCS aims to increase successful post-release reintegration, through providing counseling and directing inmates towards alternative livelihoods. This effort strives to mitigate the risks associated with drug abuse and gang membership in order to ensure those being released from prison can become productive members of the Maldivian community.

Johann Rebert is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka and Nabeel Salie manages the Foundation’s projects in the Maldives. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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