Monday, June 29, 2015

International standards for the treatment of prisoners

By Anita Grace, PhD Student, Law and Legal Studies, Carleton University

For over 50 years we have had international rules concerning the minimum standards for the humane treatment of prisoners. These rules call for necessities of life, such as nutritional food, exercise and access to health care. Unfortunately, the rules are not legally binding. So even when countries (like Canada) endorse them, no obligations exist to ensure compliance.

Rules for the treatment of prisoners

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) provide international guidelines for the treatment of people who are incarcerated. They were adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1955 and were among the first international instruments aimed at protecting the rights of people accused of committing criminalized offences.

The Bangkok Rules (UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2010. They provide standards for the treatment and care of criminalized and incarcerated women.

All UN member states are encouraged to implement the SMRs and the Bangkok Rules in the administration of carceral institutions, and to consider incorporating them in relevant legislation. But the rules are not binding instruments that states sign and ratify. So countries are not legally bound to comply with them, even after endorsing them.

In 1975, Canada officially endorsed the SMRs. This meant that Canada agreed to consider embodying the SMRs within both federal and provincial legislative frameworks. However, the Canadian Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) does not invoke or even allude to international obligations and norms, such as the SMRs.

Key provisions of SMRs

The SMRs provide principles of good practice in the treatment of prisoners and the management of carceral institutions. They are an important point of reference for defining what constitutes the humane treatment of those imprisoned in a prison setting.

A fundamental aspect of the rules is that they are to be applied impartially and without discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. At the same time, the SMRs mandate respect and accommodation for religious and cultural differences.

Some of the specific standards stipulated in the SMRs include the provision of:
  • accommodations that are appropriately heated, ventilated and cleaned;
  • nutritional food;
  • appropriate bedding and clothing that is regularly laundered;
  • regular exercise;
  • books and other educational materials; and 
  • the same standard of medical services as is provided to the general public.

  • Prohibitions for prisoner treatment include:
  • corporal punishment;
  • solitary confinement; and 
  • other cruel, unusual, and/or degrading treatment.

  • Special requirements for women prisoners include:
  • separate detention from incarcerated men; and
  • accommodation for pregnancy, childbirth and child care.

  • Additionally, according to the Bangkok Rules:
  • women should be given appropriate healthcare;
  • women should be treated humanely;
  • the dignity of women should be protected during searches;
  • women should be protected from violence; and
  • special provisions should be made for mothers and their children.

  • Since most prisoners will eventually return to the community, the SMRs address the right to be reasonably prepared for reintegration.  This includes:
  • opportunities to engage in meaningful work, programs and activities that have some relevance to life outside prison; and
  • opportunities to remain in contact with friends and family.

  • Canada and the SMRs

    The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) suggests that “Canadian law and correctional policy have taken into account” the SMRs. The agency also identifies three fundamental human rights principles upon which the SMRs are based:
    1.  A prisoner's sense of dignity and worth as a human being must be respected and maintained through the entire course of their imprisonment.
    2. The suffering that results from the loss of liberty and freedom by the fact of incarceration is punishment enough.
    3. The primary role of prisons is rehabilitation, not punishment.
    However, the 2013-2014 Annual Report from Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, describes Canadian federal prison environment as “one marked by disease transmission, environmentally exacerbated health decline and death, and heightened risks of mental illness”. As the Correctional Investigator, Sapers has consistently pointed to the failures of federal corrections to apply the SMRs.

    In 2013, Sapers identified specifically some of the areas in which Canada does not comply with the SMRs.
    1.  Contrary to rule 9(1), which states that “it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room,” federal penitentiary practice allows for double- and even triple-bunking of prisoners, the practice of placing two or three prisoners in a cell designed for only one. As Sapers reported in to participants of the May 2015 Critical Perspectives: Criminology and Social Justice - Fifth National Conference approximately 14% of federal prisoners are double-bunked. 
    2. Contrary to rule 8(d) which stipulates that “[y]oung prisoners shall be kept separate from adults”, Canada permits some criminalized youth under the age of 18 to serve their prison sentence in adult institutions. This practice violates both the SMRs and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.
    3. Contrary to rule 11(a) which requires that all cells have “windows large enough to enable the prisoners to read or work by natural light”, some penitentiary cells do not meet this minimum standard.
    4. Contrary to rules 22-26, which provide minimum standards for health care such that it is of the same standard provided to the general public, the quality and delivery of health care in Canadian penitentiaries often fails to meet professionally accepted practice or is not equivalent to community standards.
    More research is needed to document the ways in which jails, detention centres, prisons and penitentiaries fail to implement the SMRs and the Bangkok Rules. If you know of examples of failed implementation, please post them in a comment below.

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