Human Rights For Prisoners

Human dignity is a key concern for prisoners, as well as for the international, regional and national bodies that monitor them.

The Court has published several Case-law Guides which analyse and summarise the important judgments it has delivered in prison-related cases. This particular Guide analyses the Court’s case-law on different articles relating to prisoners’ rights.

Rights of detainees

Prisoners must be able to read, write, practice their religion and communicate with the outside world. These activities are central to their ability to retain their humanity and to provide a form of oversight over prison conditions.

In some countries, prisoners are denied these basic rights in the name of security or health. They may be subjected to discriminatory treatment based on race, sexual orientation and disability and they are often excluded from facilities and programs available to the general population.

They are also at risk of contracting diseases that are easily treatable, including hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. These illnesses are particularly dangerous in a closed environment.

Right to privacy

Many people believe that prisoners lose their rights when they enter prison. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that a person’s rights cannot be taken away simply because they are in custody.

Prisoners have a right to privacy and may not be subjected to searches that violate their dignity. Prisoners also have a right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

They have a right to practice their culture, religion and beliefs, and use their language while in prison, unless there is a good reason for preventing this.

Right to medical care

Like any other person, prisoners can suffer from illnesses and injuries that require medical attention. Those working in prisons and jails need to be familiar with relevant laws, rulings and international standards regarding medical treatment for prisoners.

For instance, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that prisoners have a right to conditions “adequate for the health and well-being of persons deprived of liberty”. This is an absolute right (other rights are ‘limited’ or ‘qualified’) and it applies to all aspects of healthcare in prisons.

Right to family

Prison staff must consider your human rights when making decisions about you or taking actions affecting you. They can only limit your rights if they have a good reason, such as keeping you and other prisoners safe.

Prisoners are entitled to health care that is at least equivalent to that available to people outside of prison. This is set out in many international instruments, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

In the case of Polyakova and Others v Russia, the Court found that decisions to relocate applicants to remote penal facilities thousands of miles from their families violated their right to respect for family life.

Right to education

Education is a fundamental right that opens doors for individuals and presents a priceless opportunity for prisoners to change their lives. In fact, although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not explicitly refer to prisoners, their rights are acknowledged in many international and regional non-binding instruments, such as the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (commonly known as the Nelson Mandela rules).

Prisoners should be able to pursue their education and improve their chances of social reintegration. It is crucial to promote prison education as a right.

Right to a fair trial

All prisoners have a right to a fair trial. They must be charged with a crime and given the opportunity to present a defence and be able to consult lawyers and family members before and during their trial.

Prisoners should also be given adequate detention conditions, including an end to prolonged solitary confinement, and rapid and regular access to their families and lawyers. They must not be subjected to torture or any other form of ill treatment, including sexual assault.

They must also be given health care that is at least equivalent to that available in the community and they should have their right to medical confidentiality respected (see Case-Law Guide on Article 6 of the European Convention). We have helped set up windows in prison cells, install heat extractor ventilation and erect internal fences to provide outside space for prisoners.

Right to be reintegrated into society

All prisoners have a right to be reintegrated into society. This includes a right to adequate living standards, health care and education. Prisoners also have a right not to contract disease in prison, especially HIV/AIDS.

Despite the existence of internationally recognised human rights instruments, violations of prisoners’ human rights are common in many countries. The Universal Declaration of 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights explicitly state that people deprived of their liberty have rights.

These include not being detained arbitrarily, not being held incommunicado and not being tortured. They should also have rapid access to lawyers and doctors.

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