By Munira Ali
On the 7th of April 2016, experts on prison reform and management were convened for a two-day meeting by the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and Penal Reform International (PRI) to discuss the recently revised standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners (also known as the Mandela rules- a name designed to honour the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela). The aim of the meeting was to come up with practical guidance for implementation, which struck a fine balance between making sure that the revised rules are not unreasonably burdensome on prison administrations and guaranteeing tangible improvement of prisoners’ treatment.
One of the experts, Taghreed Jaber, regional director of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for PRI, shared her insight into the revisions. Taghreed, who is also an alumni of the University of Essex, contributed to the drafting of the revisions and views the process itself as a success.
The Mandela Rules were first adopted in 1957 and are frequently viewed by States as the main source of standards relating to treatment in detention. While it is not a binding legal instrument, some of the rules reflect legal obligations and are used by international bodies as an important interpretative tool. Additionally, its impact in advocacy campaigns by prison reformers cannot be underestimated. Changes were long sought after to reflect the major developments in human rights and criminal justice that have materialised since its inception. Indeed, many prison departments had implemented programmes and practices that went way beyond the rules- this, Taghreed believes, provided the impetus to advocate for substantive changes.
Eight substantive areas were revised. Taghreed particularly calls attention to revisions to the rules related to health, which make clear that health care is a matter of State responsibility and should reflect the standards of the outside world. The rules underline the requirement for health care professionals to act independently, and spells out the importance of maintaining privacy with respect to medical files. She is also pleased to see that there is now a definition of solitary confinement included (the first time a definition of this practice has been included in international standards); that the rules related to vulnerable groups were bolstered; and the addition of rules related to contact with the outside world which make plain the need to protect the dignity of both the prisoner and his or her loved ones. Overall, she believes that the revisions are very positive and do not lower any pre-existing standards.
Content with the revisions, Taghreed is now concerned with the implementation of the new rules. She feels that the expert meeting helpfully addressed a myriad of legal and policy issues, a number of which related to resources. The biggest challenge appears to be seeking to ensure that these standards are complied with in countries with very limited resources. Pushing prison reform closer to the top of the agenda of policy-makers is an unenviable task, but one that, Taghreed argues, is possible provided that the right arguments are put forward.
Taghreed has eight years of experience calling for greater respect for human rights standards and principles related to the treatment of prisoners in the MENA region, and is accustomed to convincing policy-makers that it is in their interests to comply with such standards. She asserts that arguments need to be tailored towards the main interests of the particular policy-maker. So, for example, for persons who are mainly interested in their country’s human rights record and stand at international level then you should underline the value of maintaining/working towards a good human rights record; for persons chiefly concerned with the safety and security of the population, you should focus more on how investing in prisons and providing proper rehabilitation and reintegration programmes can result in reducing the recidivism and crime rates; and for persons who are perhaps more easily persuaded by economic reasons, it is advisable to describe how investment now will lead to long-term savings (better prisons lead to lower crime rates thereby reducing the prison population). All these arguments are important, but reasons related to security have generally proved to be the most effective, according to Taghreed.
The Mandela rules cannot be read in isolation. Taghreed raises the importance of referring back to other standards, particularly the Bangkok rules which deals with female offenders and are complementary to the Mandela rules. Prisons were designed by men for men of a certain age and physical ability, and therefore today’s standards need to be gender-sensitive and cognizant of the needs of the disabled, children, minorities, and other vulnerable groups. Taghreed is particularly concerned with ensuring that standards relating specifically to female and juvenile offenders are complied with. She especially stresses the need to provide appropriate measures and safeguards for children accompanying their mothers in prison. These children are often subject to harassment and are sometimes denied appropriate facilities; they are a vulnerable group that make up a very small proportion of the prison population, but who cannot be overlooked.
As for the future, Taghreed believes that there is much to be done- both at the policy-making level and societal level- to convince people of the importance of prison reform. Principally, prisons need to be set up in a way that is conducive to leading a successful life following release from prison. She hopes that eventually prisons will be used as a last resort- used only for punishing the most serious of crimes. Greater reliance on alternatives to imprisonment will contribute to the reduction in prison overcrowding; and, by consequence, the reduction of the workload of prison administration and staff. She notes that a prison cell in Tunisia accommodating around 200 prisoners is staffed by just one officer at night. She hopes circumstances such as these will be a thing of the past. Ultimately, progress should be measured against minimising the differences between prison life and the outside word- the revised rules go some way towards achieving this.
Taghreed Jaber is the regional director of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for Penal Reform International (PRI). She holds an LLM in International Human Rights from the University of Essex.
Munira Ali is an LLM candidate in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the University of Essex and a research assistant to Professor Lorna McGregor (Director of the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre).
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.