Challenging Abuses: Using Human Rights Standards in Prisons

Human Rights For Prisoners

Human rights frameworks offer the promise of protecting fundamental rights in places where people are vulnerable. However, they are often difficult to put into practice.

This article will look at the ways in which prisoners and those that inspect and monitor prisons can use these human rights standards to challenge abuses.

Right to health

It is your right to have access to the highest attainable standard of health care while in prison. This includes physical and mental health treatment, as well as a healthy environment.

This is a crucial area where people in prison often face violations of their human rights. For example, if you are suffering from depression or are in the early stages of dementia and are not receiving proper medication, you may be at risk of losing your life.

GHRC has a long history of working to address this issue. In addition to our work on the Mandela Rules, we have undertaken engineering assistance to build windows in cells, install heat extractor ventilation and erect internal fences that create areas for prisoners to exercise outdoors. We have also helped to improve sanitation and access to potable water in many countries. We are continuing to monitor these improvements and will continue to raise the profile of prisoner health issues.

Right to a fair trial

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 did not refer to prisoners, but the rights it set out – including the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence – implicitly apply to those in custody. Since then, many international treaties have added to and expanded the right to a fair trial.

Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations because of their lack of freedom and their isolation from family, friends and their community of support. They are also likely to be at greater risk of HIV infection and other illnesses, and need specialised care.

Yet fair trials do not always happen. People are denied justice because of poor legal systems, lack of funding and corruption. For example, ‘MK’ was deprived of her fair trial right when the courts refused to take into account a medical report that she had contracted HIV in prison. This was based on the false assumption that she had been taking medication and was not at risk of contracting HIV outside of prison.

Right to privacy

The right to privacy in prison is a fundamental human rights issue. It should not be violated – as is all too often the case – in the name of security or efficiency. This right includes the right to communicate with family and friends without major surveillance, to meet with a lawyer and to receive medical treatment.

In the United States, shackling pregnant women during labor and forcing them to work without pay in prison labor facilities are examples of shocking human rights violations that reflect racial disparities in criminal justice systems across the country. Other violations include solitary confinement and secret interrogation techniques.

International treaties and other human rights standards make clear that prisoners have rights that must be respected. The United Nations works closely with States and civil society to safeguard these rights, including working with prisoners themselves. We also support the work of national and regional human rights bodies and nongovernmental organizations that monitor conditions in prisons.

Right to freedom of expression

You have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to publish and spread ideas and information. But this right is not absolute and can be limited by law, such as in cases of libel or pornography, terroristic threats, criminal conspiracy to reveal inside information to manipulate stock prices, or speech that imminently incites violence.

You can also keep practicing your culture, religion or beliefs, unless there is a good reason to stop you. You can do this through cultural art or yarning circles, for example.

You have the right to access a standard of health care that is at least equivalent to what you would get outside prison, as set out in human rights instruments. This includes the right to receive medical and mental health treatment. You must not be refused emergency medical treatment that could save your life or prevent serious damage to your health. You also have the right to private visits and communications with loved ones in prison.

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