On May 22, 2015, the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) gathered in Vienna and adopted the Mandela Rules, which are revisions to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR), the leading international principles on the treatment of prisoners, which had not been updated since they were drafted in 1955. The Mandela Rules honor the late South African President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years by the country’s apartheid regime. [UNODC Press Release] See U.N., Econ. & Soc. Council, U.N. Standards Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules), E/CN.15/2015/L.6/Rev.1 (2015). The Mandela Rules will be presented to the UN General Assembly for approval in the fall. [ACLU Blog]
The Mandela Rules emphasize the need for improvement in nine thematic areas: respect for prisoners’ dignity and value as human beings; the provision of medical and health services; disciplinary action and punishment; investigation of deaths in custody and allegations of torture; protection of vulnerable groups; access to legal representation; complaints and independent inspections; the replacement of outdated terminology; and training of staff to implement the SMR. See Mandela Rules at 4. The resolution approving the Mandela Rules also declares July 18th Mandela Prisoner Rights Day in order to promote more humane conditions in confinement. See id. at para 7.
In response to the adoption of the Mandela Rules, Yury Fedotov, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, expressed the following: “the rules stress that prisoners will be protected from torture and other cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This means the rules probably represent one of the most significant human rights advances in recent years.” [UNODC Press Release]
Background to Mandela Rules
The Mandela Rules are the culmination of five years of extensive consultations and negotiations between intergovernmental organizations, civil society groups, and independent experts. Representatives of various UN entities, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, along with specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, were involved in these consultations. See Mandela Rules at 4. The Special Rapporteur on Torture also presented a thematic report on the revision of the SMR to the UN General Assembly in 2013.
Additionally, civil society groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, were active in this process of consultations. Immediately prior to the approval of the Mandela Rules, these organizations noted that the review of the SMR was “urgent,” particularly because in many States, the SMR are the only standard on the treatment of detainees and in others, the SMR are used as a guiding document to develop national prison standards. [ACLU Joint Oral Statement]
The resolution adopting the Mandela Rules emphasizes the developments that have taken place internationally since the SMR were adopted in 1955. These developments include the adoption of international treaties (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and its Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), as well as procedures to implement various standards and norms specifically related to criminal justice (the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules)). See Mandela Rules at 2.
Purpose and Scope of the Mandela Rules
The stated objective and purpose of the Mandela Rules is to “[s]et out what is generally accepted as being good principles and practice in the treatment of prisoners and prison management.” See id. at 8.
The resolution adopting the Mandela Rules addresses nine thematic areas:
- respect for prisoners’ dignity and value as human beings;
- medical and health services;
- disciplinary action and punishment;
- investigation of deaths in custody and allegations of torture;
- protection of vulnerable groups;
- access to legal representation;
- complaints and independent inspections;
- replacing outdated terminology; and
- training staff to implement the SMR. See id. at 4.
Protect Prisoners’ Dignity
To protect prisoners’ dignity, the Mandela Rules recommend that prisons maintain a standardized file keeping system, promptly address prisoners’ complaints, and allow prisoners to communicate with their family and friends at regular intervals. File management systems, which may be electronic or handwritten, are intended to prevent unauthorized access to or modification of prisoners’ files. See id. at 10. Prisoners’ requests and complaints are to be addressed promptly and if there are undue delays, prisoners may bring their complaints before an authority with the jurisdiction to hear complaints. Additionally, safeguards should be put in place to ensure that complaints remain confidential. See id. at 22. Allegations of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are to be investigated promptly by an independent national authority and to the extent possible, officials should place prisoners in a facility close to their home. See id.
Medical and Health Services
To ensure prisoners’ physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, the Mandela Rules state that the prison administration shall regularly provide prisoners with nutritional food and drinking water and allow outdoor exercise for one hour daily if weather permits. The Mandela Rules emphasize that the State is responsible for providing free healthcare to prisoners and that prisoners should have access to the same standard of healthcare that is available in the community. Healthcare services should include treatment for medical conditions, including HIV, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, and drug dependence. In addition, each prison should have an interdisciplinary healthcare team, including medical personnel with experience in psychology and psychiatry to ensure that both the physical and mental health needs of prisoners are addressed. See id. at 13.The Mandela Rules recommend that strip and body cavity searches should only be conducted if necessary and should only be performed in private by a qualified medical professional or a staff member who has been trained by a medical professional. See id. at 20.
Disciplinary Action and Punishment
The Mandela Rules define solitary confinement as the “confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact” and prolonged solitary confinement as “solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days.” They state that solitary confinement should only be used in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for the shortest duration possible. Placing a prisoner in solitary confinement should be subject to independent review and must be authorized by a competent authority. The Mandela Rules prohibit placing prisoners suffering from mental or physical disabilities in solitary confinement if this would exacerbate their existing medical conditions and reiterate existing prohibitions on imposing solitary confinement and similar measures on women and children. See id at 18-19.
Investigations of Deaths in Custody and Allegations of Torture
The Mandela Rules recommend that prison directors promptly handle custodial deaths, disappearances, or serious injuries as well as allegations of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners by contacting an independent authority to conduct an impartial investigation. As long as a prison director has reasonable grounds to suspect that an act of torture or inhumane treatment has been committed, he or she should contact the independent national authority, whether or not the prisoner has made a formal complaint. See id. at 25.
Protection of Vulnerable Groups
The Mandela Rules state that valid commitment orders are a prerequisite to admitting individuals into a prison. The prison should keep a file on every prisoner, containing, among other things, information about self-perceived gender, any visible injuries and complaints about prior maltreatment, names of family members, and emergency contact details of next of kin. See id. at 10.
Access to Legal Representation
The Mandela Rules advise that prisons provide every prisoner with written information about prison regulations and prisoners’ rights upon entry into the prison. This information should cover how to seek legal advice, including through legal aid organizations, and how to make requests or file complaints. This information should be available in the most commonly used languages of the prison population and, if a prisoner does not understand any of those languages, interpretation services should be provided. Additionally, if a prisoner is illiterate, the information should be given orally. Any prisoners with sensory disabilities should be provided with information in such a way that meets their needs. See id. at 21.
Complaints and Independent Inspections
According to the Mandela Rules, a competent administrative authority should determine what conduct in prison constitutes a disciplinary offense, the duration and types of sanctions that can be imposed for offenses, and who is authorized to impose these sanctions. Also, the administrative authority should determine when any form of involuntary separation from the general prison population, including solitary confinement, isolation, or segregation, is appropriate. See id. at 16. To protect prisoners’ rights, the Mandela Rules advise that prisoners be provided with written information about prison regulations as well as prisoners’ rights and obligations, including information about how to make requests and complaints. See id. at 21.
Replace Outdated Terminology
The Mandela Rules recommend updating outdated terminology about the SMR in accordance with the revisions. See id. at 4.
Train Staff to Implement Mandela Rules
The Mandela Rules also include provisions about the training of relevant staff to ensure that they implement the rules. For example, the use of chains and irons is prohibited and only prison directors may order the use of restraints under specific circumstances. See id. at 19.
Finally, the Mandela Rules contain a section on rules that are applicable to the following special categories of individuals and groups: prisoners under sentence, prisoners with mental disabilities and/or health conditions, prisoners under arrest or awaiting trial, civil prisoners, and persons arrested or detained without charge. See id. at 29-36.
To learn more about the work of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. For further information on torture, prisoners’ rights, and selected international case law on this topic, visit IJRC’s thematic research guide on torture.