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Promoting pirate prisons: exploring the intersections of narratives, media, and criminal justice reform in East Africa

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In March of 2011, several news media outlets published articles announcing the opening of a “pirate prison” in the northwest region of Somalia. Over the next five years, news articles about East African prisons holding piracy prisoners en masse were among the few ways in which the public came to know pirate prisons—what they look like, who they punish, and how they punish. Our analysis of the text and imagery in news articles about these prisons reveals that pirate prison narratives reflects the unique political, social, and economic issues of each location. The geographically-specific narratives are created, promoted, and in some cases silenced by different actors and entities to shape public perception of pirate prisons and motivate funding decisions. This case study aims to theorize what these pirate prison narratives tells us more broadly about the complexities underlying the promotion of criminal justice reforms in the media and the political economy of punishment in East Africa. We contend that the production and maintenance of particular pirate prison narratives helps various actors and agencies maximize benefits tied to a broader penal market where piracy prisoners are detained and transferred in exchange for development aid.

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  1. The authors recognize the politics behind the creation and promotion of the grand narrative of Somali piracy. Many scholars have examined and challenge the grand narrative as presenting an oversimplistic understanding of Somali piracy. These scholars have also introduced and explored alternative piracy narratives originating from marginalized populations and regions. See [1,2,3].

  2. In 2014, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Counter Piracy Programme changed its name to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Maritime Crime Programme.

  3. See [5, 6] for critiques of the shortcomings of Nexis as a data collection tool.

  4. A list of the thirty-six articles analyzed for this project can be accessed at:

  5. Andrew Jefferson and Martin [18] argue for an alternative body of work that explores African prisons as they are, rather than what they ought to be. For more on this inspiring and growing body of work see the Prison Service Journal Special Edition on Prison Governance in Africa.



  8. Initiated in early 2012, the UNODC Piracy Prisoner Transfer Programme (PPTP) aims to repatriate all Somali pirates convicted and detained in Kenya, the Seychelles, and other regional states back to Somalia to serve out the remainder of their sentences.

  9. At the time of writing this paper, and outside the scope of the research timeframe, the Somaliland regional government expanded their acceptance of convicted piracy prisoners to include those originating from the South-Central region of Somalia. However, they continue to reject the repatriation of piracy prisoners originating from the Puntland region of Somalia.


  11. To be considered for repatriation to Somalia, piracy prisoners must meet specific requirements agreed upon by the UNODC and the Somali regional governments. Even if the piracy prisoner meets all the necessary requirements, he must agree to be repatriated for the transfer to take place. Most piracy prisoners request to be considered for repatriation.


  13. The center was initially called the Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution & Intelligence Coordination Centre (RAPPICC), but later changed its name to the Regional Fusion & Law Enforcement Centre for Safety & Security at Sea (REFLECS3). It focuses on intelligence development, investigation and prosecution, and capacity building in the Indian Ocean region.

  14. In 2010, al-Shabaab carried out a series of bombings in Kampala, Uganda. Retaliatory attacks against Uganda and Ugandans have continued to-date with a 2018 suicide bombing in Somalia that killed 46 Ugandan peacekeeping troops.


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Correspondence to Brittany Gilmer.

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Gilmer, B., Comerford, C. Promoting pirate prisons: exploring the intersections of narratives, media, and criminal justice reform in East Africa. Crime Law Soc Change 71, 403–421 (2019).

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