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A Presbyterian pastor finds hope and direction in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The new year is a reminder to continue work on establishing ‘a world of peace and happiness for all’

by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Implementation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the global prison system was a major part on the agenda of the Pan Africa CURE Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in May 2023. (Photo courtesy of Hans Hallundbaek)

“Nothing is constant but change,” says the philosopher, and we might as well add, “…changing ever faster.” Wherever we look today the world is changing and at an unprecedented rate.

Much of that change is alarming, but there is also some good news, such as for our prison system. In my home state of New York, the state prison population in the last 25 years has been reduced from 70,000 in the late 1990s to around 30,000 today.

However, still missing is a full understanding of prisoners’ human rights. It is therefore important to remind all of the recent celebration last month of the 75-year anniversary for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This anniversary has created renewed interest in this declaration, which has been called “one of the most important documents ever written in human history.”

This interest bodes well for the general human rights movement in 2024, for the UDHR gives us powerful tools for positive change in just 30 moving articles — not only for the prison world but society at large. As a sample, Article 1 reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” These two powerful sentences should inspire us to check out not only the preamble, but also its remaining 29 articles with its uplifting language in an era where dark clouds of fascistic rhetoric are gathering in various parts of the world.

For prison reformers and the 10 million people worldwide behind bars, the related 11-point UN document adopted December 14, 1990, called “Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners,” is of vital importance. The document’s Point 1 reads. “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.” These are powerful sentiments and are further elaborated in the subsequent 10 points, reminding us of our moral and spiritual obligations not only to our fellow human beings but also those who have breached the laws of human society. It calls upon us to develop a whole new perspective on imprisoned people, as fellow human beings who have made mistakes and need our understanding and help in rehabilitation.

Each new year, we ponder how to establish a world of peace and happiness for all. As the billowing clouds of darkness have spread around the world in the past several years, may 2024 be the year where with renewed energy we embrace the UDHR declaration in all the areas of our global society. Since the prison system is one of the biggest human rights violators, this is an area where its application is in dire need and can produce quick results.

Writing off the world of prison as too small to care about is to miss the point of its true size. Realizing that for each of the 10 million people imprisoned globally, on average there are five family members psychologically imprisoned together with him or her. With that expanded insight, the number of people impacted negatively climbs quickly to 60 million. The added reality is that for each crime there is a least one victim who together with his/her family is psychologically impacted. Our number thus balloons to a staggering 120 million, about the populations of France and Italy combined.

Such a sizable part of the global population deserves our attention and here is where the Human Rights Declaration becomes a vital tool. By exercising its command to recognize the “inherent dignity and value” of incarcerated individuals, we recognize their need for rehabilitative education and care. At the same time, and in the world of siblinghood, we individually have a role to play in filling that need for outreach and learning on an individual level the truth and rewards of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor.

To implement the UDHR onto the societal level requires an admission that our criminal justice system has carried a major flaw since its adoption from 12th century English Law. It rules that a criminal act is an offense against the state, and not the home community of the offender. In early societies, where every human being was needed for survival, the community had an inherent interest in the rehabilitation of any offender. However, this opportunity is lost once the offender is extradited into a distant, far away, bare, cold and largely punitive state facility.

A recent innovation to seek some solution to this problem is the Adopt-A-Prison concept, where the community surrounding its local prison develops various outreach programs including education, rehabilitation, re-entry, and general welfare activities, all aiming at returning individuals to their community as a contributing member — and all in the spirit of the Matthew 25 Movement.

The issue of harm to the 10 million crime victims and their families is a different and equally important problem inextricably tying them to their offenders. The only true solution to this issue is the victim/offender resolution concept, also called restorative justice. When allowed the time and professional guidance required, this methodology has proven very effective in erasing fear and guilt and in bringing emotional healing to the victim, the offender and the community where the crime took place. It is a poignant example of the scriptural obligation of forgiveness, seven times 70 times.”

The author raises the UN flag during his Pan Africa CURE, Nairobi conference presentation on the need for adoption of the Human Rights Declaration in our global prison systems. (Photo courtesy of Hans Hallundbaek)

An African prison chaplain with a lifetime of experience in prison reform, prisoner rehabilitation and the forgiveness requirements recently minted this quote: While it takes a community to save a prison, it takes a prison to save a community.”

If we accept the message of this quote, we implicitly suggest that prison reform along the lines of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the model for saving the world. A doubter may counter that a solution for the population the size of Italy and France combined is a laughable suggestion for a world population that now exceeds eight billion people. However, if we are willing to accept that most of the world’s population is itself imprisoned in poverty, and we all are imprisoned ourselves in environmental, cyber technology, and political world power problems, then the radical suggestion that total implementation of the UDHR must be seriously considered. This act performed in combination with renewed examination of our inheritance of moral, spiritual, and religious systems developed and refined over the millennia for such a predicament as the world is in right now. This would give birth to a new world with freedom for all. Happy New Year.

The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a co-founder of both Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership, an outreach of Hudson River Presbytery. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College. He lives in Katonah, New York.

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