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Thursday, May 11, 2017


Female inmates in Africa

Female inmates in Africa

Rev. James Fatuse on basic principles for the treatment of prisoners

The liberty of the person is one of the most precious rights of all human beings. In certain circumstances, judicial authorities may decide that it is necessary to deprive some people of that right for a period of time as a consequence of the actions of which they have been convicted or of which they are accused. 

When this happens the persons concerned are handed over by the judicial authority to the care of the prison administration.

They are then described as prisoners. The essence of imprisonment is the deprivation of liberty and the task of the prison authorities is to ensure that this is implemented in a manner which is no more restrictive than is necessary. It is not the function of the prison authority to impose additional deprivations on those in its care.


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10: All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, Principle 1: All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.

The body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, Principle 1: All persons under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Article 5: Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and to the recognition of his legal status.

American Convention on Human Rights, Article 5 (2): All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Putting it into practice The ethical basis of prison management Prison management needs to operate within an ethical framework. Without a strong ethical context, the situation where one group of people is given considerable power over another can easily become an abuse of power. The ethical context is not just a matter of the behavior of individual staff towards prisoners.

A sense of the ethical basis of imprisonment needs to pervade the management process from the top down. An emphasis by the prison authorities on correct processes, a demand for operational efficiency, pressure to meet management targets without a prior consideration of ethical imperatives can lead to great inhumanity. 

A concentration by the prison authorities on technical processes and procedures will lead staff to forget that a prison is not the same as a factory which produces motor cars or washing machines. The management of prisons is primarily about the management of human beings, both staff, and prisoners. 

This means that there are issues which go beyond effectiveness and efficiency. When making decisions about the treatment of human beings there is a fundamental consideration; the first question which must always be asked is “Is what we are doing right?”

In democratic societies, the law underpins and protects the fundamental values of society. The most important of these is respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings, whatever their personal or social status. One of the greatest tests of this respect for humanity lies in the way in which a society treats those who have broken, or are accused of having broken, the criminal law. 

These are people who may well have themselves shown a lack of respect for the dignity and rights of others. Prison staff has a special role on behalf of the rest of society in respecting their dignity, despite any crime which they may have committed. 

This principle of respect for all human beings, whatever wrong they might have done, was articulated by a famous former prisoner and ex-President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela: “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. 

This principle must be kept in mind at all times by those who are responsible for the administration of prisons. Applying it in very difficult circumstances requires commitment. First line prison staff will only be able to maintain this commitment if they get a clear and consistent message from those in charge of the system that this is an imperative.

Men and children who are at St. Albans Correctional Centres are still human beings. Their humanity extends far beyond the fact that they are prisoners. Equally, prison staff is human beings. The extent to which these two groups recognize and observe their common humanity is the most important measurement of a decent and humane prison. Where such recognition is lacking there will be a real danger that human rights will be abused. 

The proper behaviour of staff towards prisoners is the key lesson of this article. If the staff does not behave in a way which respects the prisoner as a person and which recognizes the inherent dignity of the person, then any regard to individual human rights becomes impossible. Staff behavior and the humane and dignified treatment of prisoners should underpin every operational activity in a prison. 

This is not merely a question of human rights principles. In operational terms, it is also the most effective and efficient way in which to manage a prison. In addition to being an abuse of human rights, a failure to observe this obligation can sometimes have legal consequences for the prison administration.

What this approach means in practical terms is described in greater detail in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs), which were approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1957 and which are referred to continuously in this article. 

The SMRs deal with the essential features of daily life in prison. While making clear that some aspects of the treatment of prisoners are non-negotiable and reflect legal obligations.

The text of the SMRs also recognizes that a variety of legal, social, economic and geographical conditions prevail in the world. The document states that the Standard Minimum Rules are designed to ‘stimulate a constant endeavor to overcome practical difficulties’ and encourage experiment, providing that this is in harmony with the principles expressed in the Rules (SMRs Preliminary Observations 2 and 3). 

One fact is clear both from the UN Standard Minimum Rules and from the principle enunciated in Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on which the SMRs are based. This is that the obligation to treat all prisoners at all times with “humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” is not derogable under any circumstances, including conflict and post-conflict situations. 

“Circumstances such as a state of war, a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, shall not be invoked as a justification of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." 

Notions such as “necessity”, “national emergency”, “public order”, and “order public” shall not be invoked as a justification of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. 

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Resolution on Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Africa (The Robben Island Guidelines), 2002”

Circumstances such as war, states of exception, emergency situations, internal political instability, or other national or international emergencies may not be invoked in order to evade the obligations imposed by international law to respect and ensure the right to humane treatment of all persons deprived of liberty. 

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Principles and Best Practices for the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, Principle I, 2008.


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