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Colorado Officials Lead Efforts to Modernize Afghan Prisons

Bill Zalman is the leader of a team of prison officials from Colorado that has been tapped to help train the wardens of Afghanistan’s prisons in modern correctional practices.
The head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David T. Johnson, selected Colorado because he said that state is a leader in the corrections field, along with California and Maryland. He also mentioned he had toured the Colorado prison in Cañon City and reviewed many of the vocational training programs there, which included a 3,000-head goat farm and a culinary arts program. The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), Ari Zavaras, stated that prisoners not only learn trades but also develop a work ethic that helps reduce recidivism.

Johnson said he had selected state prison experts to do the federally-funded training in Afghanistan rather than federal prison officials, largely because state systems were closer in size to those of the smaller countries that they were helping. “Our corrections system is the most effective human-rights tool we have in Afghanistan,” he said, apparently without irony.

According to Zalman, stationed in Kabul, “Prison is prison the world around. What we offer is a modern-day corrections program.” Zalman took the training assignment in Afghanistan after retiring as the DOC’s director of offender services, where he had obtained experience in risk-assessment and vocational training. He noted that no risk assessments were being done in Afghan prisons, meaning that prisoners who were prone to escape, or extremely violent, were held in the same facilities and areas as non-violent prisoners.

Most of Afghanistan’s 16,000 prisoners live in substandard, overcrowded facilities with poor sanitary conditions. Zalman said they were trying to introduce vocational programming, including tinsmithing, farming and carpet-making, to reduce problems linked with idleness. This had reduced fights, drug dealing and tension among prisoners, Zalman stated. Most Afghan prisoners are what Johnson termed garden-variety criminals, such as thieves.

The work of the Colorado prison experts is not confined to Afghanistan but extends to many other small nations, including Morocco and Mexico. They train officials in those countries on how to safely hold and transport their prisoners. According to Zalman, dozens of Mexican federal corrections officers spent three weeks at a Colorado transportation training program.

Other Colorado prison experts are in Central America, training prison guards on how to deal with the special challenges of housing gang members.

However, despite providing such training in modern correctional practices, problems still occur. For example, Afghan prison officials apparently failed to learn proper methods regarding escape prevention. On April 24, 2011, Taliban fighters dug a 1,050-foot tunnel into the Sarposa Prison in Kandahar, leading to the escape of more than 450 prisoners.
The facility had reportedly increased its security procedures following a 2008 attack by Taliban militants, involving two suicide bombers, that resulted in the escape of almost 900 prisoners. [See: PLN, April 2009, p.45].

“This is a blow,” stated Waheed Omar, an Afghan presidential spokesman, referring to the recent tunnel escape. “A prison break of this magnitude of course points to a vulnerability.”


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