Human Rights Approach to Prison Management

Title of guidance:

A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management: Handbook for Prison Staff (2nd ed.)

Author: Andrew Coyle

Prison ManagementYear published: 2009
Length: 169 pages
Format: PDF (588Kb)
Other formats: Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Croatian, Farsi, French, Georgian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Serbian and Vietnamese - phone: 020 7332 2635 / email:
Producer/ Publisher: International Centre for Prison Studies, King's College London
Type of organisation: Academic or research body

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Criminal justice, courts and prisons | Health | Policing | Immigration and asylum | Inspection and regulation | Commissioning or procurement | External Service Guidance | European Convention on Human Rights | UN Convention on the Rights of the Child | International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights | International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights | Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women | Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination | GB wide| Case studies

Audience: Senior Executives | Service management | Human resources | Front-line service personnel | Legal directors

Topics: Human rights | equality | restraint | proportionality | dignity | mental health | privacy | inspection standards | security | torture / inhuman or degrading treatment


This is a handbook written for global application - for 'everyone who has anything to do with prisons', and especially for those who deal with prisoners on a day-to-day basis. It applies a very broad range of international and regional human rights standards to all aspects of running prisons and the treatment of prisoners. Its approach is, for each subject area, to cite the relevant international standards, and then to explain what they mean and how they should be applied in practice, using clear, accessible language. The handbook includes quotes or short extracts from reports, codes and policy documents from a wide variety of countries illustrating good practice, and some examples of international human rights cases. It includes separate sections on 'recognising diversity', on 'juvenile and young prisoners' and 'women prisoners'. It is very clearly structured and navigable.

Key human rights messages in this guidance

  • The application of a human rights framework to prison management can be justified both because of ethical reasons, and because 'it works'.
  • The concept of human rights is not 'merely another subject to be added to the training curriculum' but rather it 'suffuses all aspects of good prison management and is integral to it'.
  • It is important that staff and prisoners recognising their common humanity
  • Protecting human rights improves operational efficiency.

Full review of this guidance

The Handbook emphasises that it is not sufficient for those responsible for prisons to be aware of and to refer to the relevant international standards. So that they can implement the standards in their daily work, they must be able to interpret them and to apply them in real working situations.

It underlines the fact that prison management requires a strong ethical framework: 'a sense of the ethical basis of imprisonment needs to pervade the management process from the top down'. The cultivation of an approach to prison management which recognises the humanity and inherent dignity of all people, pervades the Handbook. It also argues that maintaining an appropriate balance between security, control and justice is the key to an effectively managed prison.

Its 'key lesson' is said to be the proper behaviour of staff towards prisoners. It emphasises the importance of maintaining high standards in staff recruitment, management, terms of employment and specialised training.

The Handbook covers a wide range of issues including conditions of detention, healthcare, discipline, the use of restraints, education and activities, recognising diversity, maintaining contact with families and the outside world and handling complaints.

Each chapter includes a section on 'putting it into practice', which makes practical recommendations. For example, in the chapter on healthcare, it is suggested that as a minimum, prison administrations should provide in each prison:

  • initial medical screening on admission;
  • regular out-patient consultations;
  • emergency treatment;
  • suitably equipped premises for consultation with and the treatment of prisoners;
  • an adequate supply of appropriate medicines dispensed by qualified pharmacists;
  • facilities for physiotherapy and post-treatment rehabilitation;
  • any special diets which may be identified as medically necessary.

Legal and policy context

The context is global - the Handbook is intended to be applicable in every prison system in the world. It accordingly emphasises the universality of human rights and that it is increasingly necessary to uphold the rights of people who are deprived of their liberty: prisoners only forfeit certain rights in particular circumstances.

What difference do human rights make?

Applying human rights principles is stated to be the "most effective and efficient way in which to manage a prison".

The importance of recognising individuality is underlined. For example: "If the programme of activities in prison is to have its desired effect it will be important that each prisoner should be recognised as far as possible as an individual".

A quotation from a report on prisons in Cameroon notes the positive effect of treating detainees with dignity:

'The Administrator's humble approach to the immense challenge he was faced by treating inmates with respect and humility without compromising his authority was indeed exemplary as was seen in his strong cooperative relationship with the inmates'.

The Handbook also seeks to challenge misconceptions. For example:

'It is quite wrong to suggest that treating prisoners with humanity and fairness will lead to a reduction in security or control. On the contrary, the objective of preventing escapes and ensuring control can best be achieved within a well ordered environment which is safe for prisoners and staff...'

The direct implications of certain rights are clearly set out. For example, it is noted that prison authorities have a duty to respect prisoners' right to observe their religion and that they must not require them to take actions which are against their religion.

Practical dilemmas and how to resolve them

There are many practical suggestions throughout the Handbook. For example, the "putting it into practice" section in the chapter dealing with breakdowns in control and order underlines certain principles and then makes various practical proposals, including the importance of prevention, the need for dialogue and negotiation and the use of minimum force.

Where disciplinary problems arise, the Handbook stresses the importance of the principle of natural justice - that prisoners must know in advance about the applicable rules and regulations. Disciplinary complaints should be heard by a competent authority, proper procedures must be followed and prisoners should be able to present a proper defence and to appeal if they are found guilty. Punishments must be proportionate.

As regards prisoners' communications, the Handbook applies the principle of balancing the individual right to privacy as against the legitimate needs of security in relation to letters, phone calls and e-mails (citing, for example, a European recommendation on developing means of permitting and controlling e-mails in ways that do not threaten safety or security).

In order to prevent and monitor discrimination, the Handbook makes this observation and recommendation: 'There are a variety of ways of measuring whether discrimination is taking place, for example, in the allocation of jobs which are prized by prisoners. These include working in the kitchen or in the prison library where there is one. Prison management should check whether any minority groups are under-represented or even excluded from these prized jobs'.

Date of review

April 2011

  • Association for the Prevention of Torture, Geneva, and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights. (2005). Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel,Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: A Manual for Prevention. Geneva: Association for the Prevention of Torture and San Jose, Costa Rica: Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.
  • Association for the Prevention of Torture. (2006). Guide to the Establishment and Designation of National Preventive Mechanisms. Geneva: Association for the Prevention of Torture.
  • Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2005). Human Rights and Prisons: A Manual on Human Rights Training for Prison Officials. New York and Geneva: Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • Penal Reform International. (2001). Making Standards Work (second edition). London: Penal Reform International.
  • University of Essex. (2000). The Torture Reporting Handbook. United Kingdom: University of Essex.
  • University of Essex. (2005). Medical Investigation and Documentation of Torture: A Handbook for Health Professionals. United Kingdom: University of Essex.
  • UN Office on Drugs and Crime. (2007). Female Prisoners and their Social Reintegration. Vienna: UN Office on Drugs and Crime
  • World Health Organisation (2007). Health in Prisons: A WHO Guide to the Essentials in Prison Health. Copenhagen: World Health Organisation.


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