The Importance of Respecting Human Rights in Prisons

A prison environment that allows prisoners to contract disease, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis or HIV infection, violates human rights. Infection control measures are not enough; governments must take additional steps to protect prisoners’ health.

In the death penalty context, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that lengthy pre-execution detention amounts to a violation of human rights.

Rights of all human beings

The rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Geneva Conventions are indivisible, interdependent and inalienable. They cannot be lost, but they can be suspended in specific circumstances. For instance, prisoners’ rights may be derogated if the state declares a state of emergency and therefore invokes special measures that override other laws.

Prisoners have a right to dignity, and this must be respected regardless of their criminal conviction. They have a right to be treated humanely, and this includes access to hygienic conditions, adequate food and water, and a decent environment.

John Rawls developed the idea of a political conception of human rights in his book The Law of Peoples. This is an approach that aims to provide a normatively inescapable justification for human rights. It starts from the unique value of individual agency and autonomy, and then tries to derive a set of more determinate rights from this. It also aims to reject wholesale moral skepticism about universal moral rights.

Rights of prisoners

The extent to which a person’s rights are respected in prison varies widely, and the protections they have depend on national legal systems, international treaties and conventions and regional and non-governmental organizations. However, it is important to note that even in countries where the law on prisoners is well-established, respect for basic human rights can still be difficult.

Prisoners have a right to conditions “adequate for their health and well-being”. In addition, they are guaranteed the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

They cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their race, age, disability, sexuality or religion, unless it is for legitimate reasons such as the need to keep them safe, ensure their health or prevent escape (see the Court’s judgment in Frask v Poland, 2010, SSSS 91-93). They have the right not to be exposed to the danger of HIV infection. They also have the right to adequate accommodation.

Rules for the treatment of prisoners

Many people are shocked to discover that prisoners are subjected to physical and sexual violence in prisons around the world. Some of these violations are deliberate and part of an internal prisoner hierarchy that has been condoned, encouraged or ignored by prison authorities. Prisoners have a right to expect that prison authorities will take effective measures to prevent this violence.

Prisoners retain some of their civil rights, such as access to the courts and the right not to be assaulted. They do not have the same rights as civilians, but they are protected by the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.

These treaties require that prisoners be treated in line with the standards laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Optional Protocol to the latter. They must have effective legal process and adequate detention conditions, including an end to prolonged solitary confinement. They must also be given fair trials within a reasonable time and, where applicable, be released without conditions. Prisoners must be protected from discrimination on the basis of their sex, religion, race or disability.

International law

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 did not explicitly refer to prisoners, but its rules on the prohibition of torture and the right to a fair trial implicitly covered them. Seven years later, the United Nations Congress adopted Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR). The rules were later expanded to become the Nelson Mandela Rules, in honour of arguably the most celebrated prisoner of the twentieth century.

Prisoners are entitled to a right to conditions “adequate for the health and well-being” of their physical and mental health. They are also entitled to reasonable access to medical care and to treatment, with the assistance of their family members or friends.

Moreover, prisoners must be granted favourable opportunities for reintegration into society, including through meaningful and remunerated employment and with respect for their dignity as human beings. This includes being permitted to keep in touch with their families and their communities, and to practise their religion freely.

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