Should UN Prison Standards be revised?

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Work is underway at the United Nations to revise the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR’s). The current rules were first agreed by the UN in 1955 and were revised in the seventies. While they have limited direct force in international law, they have provided the basis for prison legislation and reform programmes in many of the 193 member states of the UN and are widely known, if not adhered to, among prison officials the world over .

The SMR’s are dated in some respects and could no doubt be improved, although the recent adoption of the Bangkok Rules has filled an important gap that existed in respect of the treatment of women in prison . But is a lengthy and uncertain process of revising a body of well understood standards a sensible priority at the moment?

It is true that prisons in many parts of the world are little more than a humanitarian disaster but this is hardly because the international rules are out of date. It is rather that governments and sometimes donors have given insufficient priority to ensuring basic prison standards are met and monitored. Under resourced prison systems are often forced to cope with the consequences of poorly functioning criminal justice processes and t alternative ways of preventing and responding to crime have in many countries been seriously neglected.

Some might argue that the process of forming a new set of standards may kick start reform programmes and that once revised standards are agreed they could provide a new tool for advocacy.  It’s true that the new European Prison Rules in 2006 stimulated a reform initiative in France although critics have argued that this  focuses primarily on increasing the country’s prison capacity. But it is hard to see cash strapped governments in low income countries suddenly affording a greater priority to prison reform as a result of a revised set of international norms particularly when in recent years higher income countries have appeared  all too ready to ignore international detention law and standards.

There may be thegreatest chance of  movement in Latin America where a powerful expert group undertook valuable and detailed work on a new set of draft SMR’s in the run up to last years UN Crime Congress in Brazil. But the challenges facing prison administrators in the region require substantial investments not only in prison infrastructure and staffing but in many cases more comprehensive reforms not only to criminal law but to broader social policy.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the often dire conditions in prisons stem in large part from overcrowding which in turn arises much of the time  from lengthy pre trial detention. Avocats Sans Frontieres has recently highlighted the problem in Uganda but a similar tale can be told in many other countries. Click here for more information

Former UN Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak thought that greater priority on penal reform might be given if countries signed a new, more binding charter on prisoners rights along the lines of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Under the existing arrangements however , the 167 countries which are  parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)  are  already supposed to  indicate in their regular reports  to the UN Human Rights Committee  how they are applying the SMR’s – earlier this year for example the Committee  recommended that Mongolia should establish an independent mechanism to monitor  places of detention and take measures  to eliminate the problems  of overcrowding in all its  prisons and to guarantee the full respect  for the SMR’s. Tthe 147 states who have ratified the Convention against Torture (CAT)  are under a further duty to  comply with the SMR’s in order to meet their  requirement under Article 11 to keep under systematic review  arrangements for the custody and treatment of persons subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment . At the end of June the Committee against Torture recommended that Finland remedy the situation of overcrowding, (by   redistributing prisoners, accelerating judicial procedures and making more use of conditional freedom) and improve conditions for prisoners by installing sanitary equipment in all places of detention as soon as possible.

The Optional Protocol on the CAT (OPCAT) gives yet further teeth to the international community with the UN Sub committee able to visit any places of detention in the countries that have ratified (currently 60) and report on both conditions and mechanisms for inspecting them. While these reports are published only with the country’s consent, the OPCAT provides an opportunity to create on a global scale an institution along the lines of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture which does such important work in the 47 countries of the Council of Europe.

Given the range of UN bodies which should already be  playing a role in monitoring prison standards, it is perhaps not surprising that the proposed revision of the SMR’s does not, as far as is known, envisage the creation of another more  binding treaty as proposed by Professor Nowak. But the question remains whether it is necessary to revise the SMR’s at all?

The great danger of course is that the process may produce diluted standards  under which   prisoners are treated less favourably than  under the current SMR’s.  The existing rules which completely prohibit corporal punishment and limit the use of instruments of restraint may for example come under pressure from states which wish to retain the option of a harsher approach for certain prisoners . Rules which guarantee rights to observe religion may also be challenged – China for example places limitations on this. Some of the clearest and best known  rules may be made less prescriptive to give states more discretion in an era when reducing costs is likely to be a major pre-occupation..-An example here is the requirement that every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.

To be fair, a harsher approach does not seem to have prevailed during the drafting of most recent sets of standards agreed at the international level  (the Bangkok Rules in 2010) or the regional level  (the Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas 2008 and the European Prison Rules 2006).   But while there is perhaps never an easy time to defend the rights of prisoners, a decade of much politicised and publicised insecurity combined with the post credit crunch  austerity creates a climate that  carries particular risks. Justice and Prisons will continue to work with international, regional, intergovernmental organisations and prison reform interest groups to seek the most positive outcome of the review process.  But in the meantime promoting and sustaining practical reforms on the ground should continue to be a priority if conditions of detention for the world’s ten million prisoners are to be improved.



  1. DR James Vadackumchery  February 11, 2014

    The book titled UNITED NATIONS and PRISON JUSTICE: The Complete Revision of teh Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners has been published by CONCEPT PUBLISHING HOUSE,New DELHI>
    Their email:
    The Website

  2. DR James Vadackumchery  February 11, 2014

    I shall be pleased if anyone comments on the contents of the book; UNITED NATIONS and PRISON JUSTICE: The Complete Revision of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
    Dr James Vadackumchery, Author

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