Unalienable Human Rights for Prisoners: Health, Education, Fair Trial, Privacy, and Family

Unalienable Human Rights For Prisoners

Whether they are convicted of a crime or not, all people have certain unalienable human rights. These can never be taken away, even by prison authorities.

The Universal Declaration of 1948 implicitly recognised these basic rights, and seven years later the United Nations adopted the Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Rights to health and education

Prisoners have a right to health care that is at least equivalent to that provided in the general population. This includes access to medical professionals and facilities that are equipped to treat their specific ailments.

This standard was first recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then reinforced in two subsequent international conventions. In addition, a number of additional documents set out guidelines on how governments can meet their international human rights obligations, including the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as Nelson Mandela Rules), the Body of Principles on Detention Conditions and the European Prison Rules.

The NYCLU fights for the rights of incarcerated New Yorkers to access quality health and education services, proper detention conditions (including an end to long-term solitary confinement), effective legal representation, and fair trials within a reasonable amount of time. Contact us if you believe your prison or jail is violating these rights. You may be eligible for free legal assistance.

Right to a fair trial

The right to a fair trial is the cornerstone of any society. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in many treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocols.

People deprived of liberty have a right to effective legal process, adequate detention conditions and a fair trial within a reasonable time. They must have the right to challenge their detention and treatment, including solitary confinement. They must also have a right to information, access to lawyers and other experts. They must be treated without discrimination and be given adequate health care.

For example, when 17-year-old Yusuf Salduz was arrested after a protest and convicted based on evidence that the European Court of Human Rights found had been unfairly gathered, Turkey introduced changes to help ensure a better system for fairness in police custody. We also publish a Fair Trial Manual, used by lawyers and prisoners as a DIY guide to international fair trial standards.

Right to privacy

Prisoners should be protected from unauthorized searches of their cells and possessions. If they have exhausted internal prison grievance procedures and still believe their rights have been violated, prisoners can file a lawsuit in federal court. However, they must be able to afford the cost of filing, which can be prohibitive for some people.

Prison officials should also respect the confidentiality of medical files, especially where HIV is concerned. Disclosing an inmate’s HIV status to non-medical staff can deter them from accessing medical services and may make it more difficult to prevent transmission.

In addition, prisoners should have a right to privacy in their telephone conversations with lawyers and family members. However, some courts have held that if prisoners are told in advance that their calls will be monitored, they have waived their expectation of privacy and the law does not protect them.

Right to family

Prisoners’ right to family and friends is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties. PRP uses law reform and class action civil rights litigation to challenge abuse in prisons and jails worldwide.

Our work has helped to establish that a prisoner’s basic health needs are met in conditions that are “adequate” for their health and well-being, and that a range of other rights, including access to legal defence, are guaranteed in the Standard Minimum Rules. We have also provided engineering assistance to build windows in prison cells and install heat extractor ventilation, and to provide water purification systems and internal fences that allow prisoners to interact with their environment.

The right to meaningful remunerated work is essential for prisoners’ dignity. However, working prisoners are often recruited into state-mediated structures of exploitation for private profit and are subject to far less stringent labour protections than other employees. This must be addressed.

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