UN Commission Approves Mandela Rules on Treatment of Prisoners
by David Fathi 
May 22, 2015 was a milestone in the global movement for prisoners’ rights. On that day, the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, meeting in Vienna, unanimously approved the Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners.
The Rules – named in honor of the late South African President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid regime – are the revised United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or SMRs. The SMRs are the leading international body of principles on the treatment of prisoners, but they were originally drafted in 1955 and were badly in need of updating.
One of the most important revisions is the addition of significant restrictions on solitary confinement – a subject on which the original SMRs were silent. The Mandela Rules provide that solitary confinement “shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review.” Indefinite solitary confinement and prolonged solitary confinement – defined as more than 15 consecutive days – are prohibited. Solitary confinement is also prohibited in the case of persons with mental or physical disabilities when their condition would be exacerbated by such confinement.
The Mandela Rules include other important revisions addressing the treatment of women and persons with disabilities. The provisions regarding health care are strengthened, and significant safeguards on the use of restraints have been added.
Finally, the resolution approving the Rules calls for July 18 – Mandela’s birthday – to be known as Mandela Prisoner Rights Day, to promote humane conditions of confinement and raise awareness of prisoners as continuing members of society.
There are some important caveats. First, the Mandela Rules are not yet in effect; they still need to be approved by the UN General Assembly this fall, although approval is overwhelmingly likely. Also, while the Rules represent a powerful global consensus on minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, they are not binding on governments or directly enforceable in court.
But it would be wrong to think that the Mandela Rules are irrelevant to prisoners in the United States. First, both federal and state courts are increasingly looking to international standards to inform their decisions, and the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have cited the SMRs. Second, the U.S. government is a strong proponent of the Mandela Rules. The United States supported adopting the Rules and naming them in honor of Mandela, whom it called “one of the greatest defenders of human rights and dignity in recent history.” And it appears committed to raising awareness of the Rules among both corrections administrators and the public at large. The U.S. delegation in Vienna included corrections directors from two states (Colorado and Washington), and in July 2015 the State Department organized a public event to commemorate Mandela Prisoner Rights Day. [Ed. Note: Which is ironic, given that the U.S. government had kept Nelson Mandela on a terrorist watch list until 2008].
Words on paper, by themselves, don’t change the world. The real work – ensuring that the Mandela Rules make a difference in the lives of the millions of prisoners in the United States and around the globe – begins now. But the unanimous adoption of these progressive principles is an important first step, and a positive development for prisoners’ rights everywhere.
1 David Fathi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project, represented the ACLU in the revision process that led to the Mandela Rules. He provided this article exclusively for PLN.
2 See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 n.8 (1976) (medical care); Villegas v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, 709 F.3d 563, 572-73 (6th Cir. 2013) (use of restraints); Thomas v. Baca, 514 F.Supp.2d 1201, 1218 (C.D. Cal. 2007) (floor-sleeping).
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