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A “Human Rights” Approach to Imprisonment Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021


It is strongly felt by most human rights activists as also by many governments that the real test for the commitment towards human rights lies in the way society treats people who are not given the freedom that every citizen is entitled to. There are several international treaties and norms about the manner in which prisoners should be treated and organizations such as the UN strive to have the human rights guidelines implemented amongst member countries. The idea is to translate the globally accepted standards on prison administration into practice so that there is increased trust in the prison services. This is an essential step in ensuring human rights to all human beings irrespective of their status. This paper will discuss the various aspects of the human rights approach to imprisonment. The complex problems in the context of prison management will be discussed and an analysis made of the manners in which prison administrators can imbibe the skills to ensure higher levels of human rights for prisoners.


The international standards for human rights in prisons are provided for by a large number of instruments:

  • The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1953)
  • European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1989)
  • European Prison Rules(1987)
  • American Convention on Human Rights (1978)
  • African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1986)

Throughout the world, judicial bodies of nations are responsible for the implementation of prison standards. In America, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights fulfills the role while in Europe it is fulfilled by the European Court of Human Rights. In Europe human rights in prisons are overseen by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights had appointed a Special Rapporteur on Prison Conditions in 1997. The UN also has adopted an Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture in establishing a uniform system whereby regular visits are made to prisons by independent inspection agencies. However the international standards for prisons can be implemented effectively only if prison officials are aware of such standards and can interpret them in applying them in realistic working situations. In a democratic society prisons are institutions that are run and managed by authorities in contributing for the cause of public welfare. Prison officials are accountable to the government and the people ought to be kept regularly informed about the state of prisons in the country.

Main Body

Prison management must function in an ethical structure, not only in terms of behaviour of prison staff but also in terms of correct procedures and operational efficiencies in order to avoid charges of inhuman practices. Prison management is primarily concerned with the administration of both prisoners and staff, which implies that the issues related to aspects that reach beyond efficiency and usefulness. The objective should be to do things right in the human perspective. The focus in prison management should be on staff and prisoners and the quality of relationships amongst them. The role of prison staff is to:

  • to treat prisoners in a manner which is decent, humane and just
  • to ensure that all prisoners are safe
  • to make sure that dangerous prisoners do not escape
  • to make sure that there is good order and control in prisons
  • to provide prisoners with the opportunity to use their time in prison positively so that they will be able to resettle into society when they are released

In a democratic society, the core values of people are protected by the law and the most vital amongst them is to ensure the self respect and self esteem of all people irrespective of their social standing. The best means to test the existence of such rights is to see the manner in which society deals with people that have broken the law and are under detention with restricted or no freedom. Coyle (2002) has aptly said that:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside the jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. This is the basis for placing prison management, above all else, within an ethical framework. This imperative must never be lost sight of by senior administrators, by prison management or by first line prison staff. Without an ethical context, managerial efficiency in prisons can take a path that leads ultimately to the barbarism of the concentration camp and the gulag,” (Coyle, 2002).

A coherent strategy and clear statement of purpose have to be framed for prison officials so that justice is practiced as a core value. Prisoners are people who are deprived of freedom and hence should be treated with respect and humanity in upholding human rights. Prison officials are required by law to perform their duties in assuming that their work is of great social service and in this respect they must ensure that public should be kept informed. While performing their duties prison personnel must demonstrate conduct in ways that they set example before prisoners in regard to respect and concern for them. Since prisoners are sent to prisons after following the due process of law, prison administration must comprise of civil and not military authorities. There should also be a distinct separation amongst the police and prison administration. It is important to have prisons under civilian authorities since almost all prisoners will eventually return to civil society after completing their prison terms and will need the support of a social structure. Hence it becomes imperative for prison administrations to associate closely with public service organizations and agencies such as health and social care organizations. It becomes easier to do so if prison management works as a civil agency instead of being manned by military or police personnel.

Prison officials need to understand that prisoners do not stop becoming human beings irrespective of the gravity of the crime they have committed. In being convicted they have their freedom taken away for the duration of their term but their humanity is not forfeited. Prison staff should consider prisoners as human beings since they do not have the right to consider them as being inferior to other humans in terms of self respect and dignity. Prison officials must work in the ethical framework because prisoners maintain their entitlement as humans, and should be able to comprehend the implication of such principles. Some aspects of this principle are very tacit in that prisoners are not to be tortured or intentionally meted out with brutal, inhuman and humiliating treatments. The awareness of this prohibition applies not only to mental and physical cruelty but also in totality of the circumstances in which prisoners are kept. According to Coyle (2002):

“torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions,” (Coyle, 2002).

Authorities must make sure that the operation guidelines do not permit them to inflict mental and physical torture on prisoners. This is also applicable for prisoners that are difficult and disruptive or for those that are segregated in view of the intensity of their crimes. The treatment that a prisoner is given when he or she enters prison is an important indication of the attitude of the prison staff. Treatment with prisoners who repeatedly break rules can be firm and assertive but there should be no involvement of brutality and inhumanity. Prisoners are also susceptible to sexual abuse under duress or in exchange, by way of swapping for certain benefits. Sexual abuse is also inflicted by staff or fellow prisoners as a way to punish and dominate over inmates. Rape in prisons has become a common problem in many countries raising serious concern about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. Prison officers must ensure that prison inmates, especially women are secure from the threats of sexual abuse (Council of Europe, 2006).

Torture can never be used in justifying the brutal and cruel actions taken against a prisoner and whenever force is warranted, it should be used in keeping with the provided procedure and must be limited to restraining the prisoner. All procedures of using force and of using other means such as handcuffs, batons and chains can be used only under the provisions of the rules. Prison staff should not be given free and unhindered access to handcuffs and other such means, but their use ought to be duly authorized by the competent officer.

Prisoners should also be provided with opportunities to develop and improve in terms of education and skills enhancement. Though a daunting task, it is essential to improve the prospects of prisoners since most of them come from disrupted and poor families. Prisons should function as places where prisoners indulge in constructive activities in order to make their conditions better. At the minimum, prisons should not prove to be places where prisoners become in a worse position as compared to the time when they entered prison. The prison should assist them in improving their health and in developing them intellectually so as to enable them to get more from life. Prisoners should be rehabilitated in a way that they not only learn to live well but also succeed in the outside world after they are released from prison. Prisoners can do well in life and refrain from criminal activities after release if they are rehabilitated and reformed to meet the challenges of the outside world. This will also save them from the discrimination that prisoners face after release from prison.


It is of significance to provide prisoners with the same working environment that is available to the general public in terms of health laws, occupational diseases and safety measures. This implies that prison officials must be conversant with legislative instructions in regard to health and safety measures and should ensure that they are implemented in prisons. The legislation should also be made applicable in regard to hours spent by prisoners on work. The working hours should be so framed that prisoners get time to engage in different activities. A balanced set of activities need to be framed for prisoners that comprise of skills enhancement, industrial training, educational and cultural pursuits and physical activities. Although the extent of these activities may vary amongst different prisons, there should be ample scope for prisoners to engage in them as per their calibre and needs.

Reference List

Council of Europe, (2006). European Prison Rules, Council of Europe.

Coyle Andrew, (2002). A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management, International Centre for Prison Studies.

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