Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

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The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 17 December 2015 after a five-year revision process.[1] They are known as the Mandela Rules in honor of the former South African President Nelson Mandela. The Mandela Rules comprise 122 items divided among nine parts. Not all are rules, but rather key principles such as institutional equality and the philosophy of confinement.[2]


The Rules were first adopted on 30 August 1955 by the United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva, and approved by the Economic and Social Council in resolutions of 31 July 1957 and 13 May 1977.

Since their adoption by the Economic and Social Council in 1957, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) have constituted the universally acknowledged minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, and probably represent the most well known amongst the United Nations standards in crime prevention and criminal justice. Despite their legally non-binding nature, the rules have been of tremendous importance worldwide as a source of inspiration for relevant national legislation as well as of practical guidance for prison management.

Although not legally binding, the Minimum Standards provide guidelines for international and domestic law for citizens held in prisons and other forms of custody. The basic principle described in the standards is that "There shall be no discrimination on grounds of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status".

Part I contains Rules of General Application. It contains standards which set out what is generally accepted as being good principle and practice in the treatment of prisoners and the management of penal institutions. Specifically, it covers issues related to minimum standards of accommodation (rules 12 to 17), personal hygiene (18), clothing[3] and bedding (19 to 21), food (22), exercise (23), medical services (24 to 35), discipline and punishment (36 to 46), the use of instruments of restraint (47 to 49), complaints (54 to 57), contact with the outside world (58 to 63), the availability of books (64), religion (65 and 66), retention of prisoners' property (67), notification of death, illness, transfer (68 to 70), removal of prisoners (73), the quality and training of prison personnel (74 to 82), prison inspections (83 to 85).

Part II contains rules applicable to different categories of prisoners including those under sentence. It contains a number of guiding principles (rules 86 to 90), the treatment (rehabilitation) of prisoners (91 and 92), classification and individualization (93 and 94), privileges (95), work[4] (96 to 103), education and recreation (104 and 105), social relations and after-care (106 to 108).

Part II also contains rules for prisoners under arrest or awaiting trial (generally referred to as remand), rules for civil prisoners (for countries where local law permits imprisonment for debt, or by order of a court for any other non-criminal process) and rules for persons arrested or detained without charge.

Revision process[edit]

The General Assembly requested the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, in 2010, to establish an open-ended intergovernmental Expert Group to exchange information on the revision of the SMRs so that they reflect advances in correctional sciences and best practices,[5] provided that any changes to the rules would not result in lowering existing standards. The General Assembly further highlighted a number of principles which should guide the continued revision process, including that (a) any changes to the Standard Minimum Rules should not lower any of the existing standards but should improve them so that they reflect the recent advances in correctional science and good practices, so as to promote safety, security and humane conditions for prisoners; and that (b) the revision process should maintain the existing scope of application of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and continue to take into account the social, legal and cultural specificities, as well as human rights obligations, of Member States.[5]

The adoption of the Nelson Mandela Rules[edit]

In December 2015, the General Assembly adopted its landmark resolution 70/175 entitled "United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules”).[6] The reference was added not only in recognition of South Africa’s major support to the revision process, but also to honor the legacy of the late President of South Africa, who spent 27 years in prisons in the course of his struggle for democracy and the promotion of a culture of peace. Accordingly, the General Assembly also decided to extend the scope of International Nelson Mandela Day (18 July) to be also utilized in order to promote humane prison conditions of imprisonment, to raise awareness about prisoners being a continuous part of society, and to value the work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance. Inmate complaints about the quality and accessibility of medical services is one of the most often and contentious issues in correctional management. In women’s prisons, all necessary prenatal and postnatal care should be available. The experience of the prisoners’ rights movements in US and UK has shown the value of rights in improving prisoners’ conditions and bringing those conditions to the attention of the public. However, recognizing prisoners as citizens by, for example, allowing them to vote have caused many issues in congress. There are great people who are imprisoned and may of just made a mistake. They are especially valuable because prisoners are isolated from the rest of society, are a low-status group in terms of their claims on society and are economically weak, so their input on the justice system or congress in general should be valid.[7]

Guidelines, Grievance, and lawsuits

There are still prisoners living below the standard minimum guidelines set by the United Nations. Part 1, basic principles of "Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners" (8) says" The safety and security of prisoners, staff, and service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times". Inside a private prison, East Mississippi Correctional Facility, there is footage of guards taking 30 minutes to respond to an assault on an inmate. A New York times article written by one Timmothy Williams, Quotes the warden of said facility as saying "...he had been unaware of cases inmates had been so badly beaten that they required hospitalization and that he had not disciplined guards who failed to ensure that inmates were unable to jamb door locks and leave there cells". These quotes coming from testimony at a federal civil rights trial against the facility. It's not just things keeping inmates safe from assaults, but other simple things like medical care. In 2003- 2004, one inmate a week died in California prisons due to inadequate medical care (Kitty Calivita, Valerie Canesse 22). Receiver in charge Robert Sillen (2006) described how he saw the facilities. " I have run hospitals, clinics and public health facilities for the past 40 years, and medical care in California Prisons is unlike anything I have ever seen. Inhumane is a nice term for the conditions" In 2006, US District Court Judge Thelton Henderson put the California prison health care system in receivership having found that its conditions violated the Eighth Amendments prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Other forms of abuse still take place. 4% of the nations prisoners, and 3.2% of jail inmates reported being sexually victimized in the past 12 months,more than half of which said the alleged incident involved a prison guard or other staff member (BJS) . Cases like that of Terrill Thomas, a Milwaukee inmate found dead in his cell of dehydration after being denied water for seven days. This was said to be a form of punishment, charges have been filed according to an article by Linh Tran (CNN). The Mandela Law serves as a great guideline for humane living conditions for those incarcerated, but since the law itself isn't legally binding, and with no incentives for prisons to follow those guidelines, the Mandela law lacks luster on substance.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules)" (PDF). United Nations General Assembly. 2015. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
  2. ^ McCrie, Robert, and Annabelle Clémot. “The Mandela Rules: Will They Impact American Corrections?” Corrections Today, vol. 77, no. 5, Sept. 2015, pp. 44–48. EBSCOhost,
  3. ^ Including on prisoner who is not allowed to wear his or her own clothing
  4. ^ Slavery and servitude are prohibited by Rule 97
  5. ^ a b "UN General Assembly Resolution 65/230". United Nations. 21 December 2010. A/RES/65/230. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  6. ^ "UN General Assembly Resolution 70/175". United Nations. A/RES/70/175. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
  7. ^ Easton, Susan. “Constructing Citizenship: Making Room for Prisoners’ Rights.” Journal of Social Welfare & Family Law, vol. 30, no. 2, July 2008, pp. 127–146. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09649060802469827.

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