55 Years On: Time To Upgrade UN Rules For Treatment Of Prisoners

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By Andrea Huber* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

LONDON (IDN) - When Phillip J. was aged 16 he was held in solitary confinement for 36 days in a U.S. prison. He described how isolation itself became a trigger for traumatic memories of solitary confinement. "Once you are confined the way I was, then any other confinement just triggers that experience – loss of sleep, all these different flashbacks of different bad events. You try to harness it, but you don’t know how or what’s going on or what’s happening.”

A number of international standards govern how prisoners like Phillip are treated. One of the key standards is the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – 55 years old this year – which has emerged as a blueprint for national prison systems globally.

These Rules were drafted in economically and politically difficult times. One of the drafters in Geneva was an Argentinian lawyer who could not return home after the process had finished fearing that he himself would be imprisoned following a coup d’état that took place in Argentina whilst he was away in Europe. Against this backdrop, it is striking that the drafters agreed on 95 rules that were ambitious and long-sighted enough to still be of huge value for governing prison conditions today.

While the Rules are practical and provide detailed guidance on conditions such as accommodation, food, contact with the outside world, medical services or complaints they unsurprisingly no longer reflect the international human rights standards that have emerged since 1957. This includes a prohibition on imposing solitary confinement as a disciplinary punishment for vulnerable groups such as children and juveniles as in Phillip’s case.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that initiated a process of consultation on the Standard Minimum Rules with a brief to ensure that they 'reflect recent advances in correctional science and best practices'. This provided a unique window of opportunity – as the Rules are so widely known and used, it is crucial that they are consistent with the current standards for treating prisoners.

While many states were initially opposed to any revision, organisations like Penal Reform International were concerned that rewriting the Rules could instead result in a deterioration of standards. Yet, a mere explanatory commentary as suggested at first would not go far enough. So as an alternative option, Penal Reform International and others have advocated for "targeted changes", promoting the revision of those areas in the Rules that are the most problematic and outdated.

This strategy of "targeted changes" has gained support, found its way in a respective UN Economic and Social Council resolution, and was discussed recently at an Intergovernmental Expert Meeting in Buenos Aires from December 11 to 13, 2012. The areas discussed at this meeting reflected Penal Reform International's initial submission to the UN, in October 2011, which included the rules on investigating all deaths in custody, health and medical services in prison, disciplinary sanctions (including solitary confinement), legal representation, complaints and independent inspection mechanisms. In order to provide input to the Buenos Aires meeting, Essex University and Penal Reform International convened a meeting of independent experts to provide recommendations on how the Rules could be revised. The outcome document was submitted to the UN and is available here.

In Buenos Aires, governmental representatives discussed possible revisions to these areas, stressed again that any changes should not lower existing standards, and listed the rules and issues under each area for consideration in any following meetings. The Expert Meeting also recommended that a drafting group be convened as a next step towards discussing the concrete wording of changes and amendments to the Rules.

It is now for the UN member states at the Crime Commission to take up these recommendations and to ensure that the revised versions of these important Rules reflect human rights standards that have evolved in the past five decades.

It might take another 50 years for another mandate to revise the Standard Minimum Rules, and prisoners like Phillip cannot wait this long.

[1] Interview with Phillip J. (pseudonym) Human Rights Watch, Florida, April 2012 in Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States, Human Rights Watch/ACLU, October 2012.

*Andrea Huber is Policy Director, Penal Reform International. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 04, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Images credit: Penal Reform International

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