United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United Nations’ formulation of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners committed the associated nations, at least in principle, to the acknowledgment of prisoners’ rights.

Summary of Event

Article 1, paragraph 3 of the United Nations Charter, drafted in 1945, acknowledges the goal of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” It was a decade from the signing of the charter before the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders (1955) met in Geneva, Switzerland, from August 22 through September 3, 1955, to devise specific language on behalf of those humans with the status of prisoners. This delay is hardly surprising. For most of recorded history all over the world, little attention has been paid to the subject of prisoners’ rights. Customarily, prisoners everywhere cede specific rights as a result of their convictions, but society has tended to ignore the matter of prisoners’ rights. As a matter of fact, the 1955 congress approached the subject of the treatment of prisoners more from a humanitarian perspective than from a legal one. United Nations;prisoners’ rights[prisoners rights] Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners Prisoners’ rights[Prisoners rights] Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [kw]United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners (Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955) [kw]Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, United Nations Sets (Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955) [kw]Prisoners, United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of (Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955) United Nations;prisoners’ rights[prisoners rights] Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners Prisoners’ rights[Prisoners rights] Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [g]Europe;Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955: United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners[04930] [g]Switzerland;Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955: United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners[04930] [c]United Nations;Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955: United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners[04930] [c]Human rights;Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955: United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners[04930] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 22-Sept. 3, 1955: United Nations Sets Rules for Treatment of Prisoners[04930] Sellin, Johan Thorsten Hammarskjöld, Dag Rogers, William P.

Fifty-one nations participated in the congress, which drew heavily on the work of the International Penitentiary Commission International Penitentiary Commission in 1926, as revised in 1933 and noted by the League of Nations in the latter year. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—the resolution which the congress adopted on August 30, 1955—reflect a last revision of the Penitentiary Commission’s work before the functions of this organization were transferred to the United Nations in 1951.

The rules are divided into two sections, those of general application and those applicable to special categories of prisoners. A statement of nondiscrimination against prisoners on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth, or other status stands as a preface to the first section. The first of the general rules requires an entry in a registration book for every prisoner indicating identity, reasons and authority for commitment, precise time of commitment and release, and details of the commitment order.

The remaining rules in this section pertain to seventeen aspects of prison life: separation of categories; accommodation; personal hygiene; clothing and bedding; food; exercise and sport; medical services; discipline and punishment; instruments of restraint; information to and complaints by prisoners; contact with the outside world; books; retention of prisoners’ property; notification of death, illness, transfer, and the like; removal from prison; institutional personnel; and inspection. The following paragraphs will discuss the rules pertaining to a selection of the foregoing items.

Prisoners should be separated by categories determined by reference to such matters as sex, age, criminal record, the reason for their detention, and necessities of their treatment. Many prisoners are people awaiting trial; these should be separated from convicts. In addition, civil prisoners (for example, those confined for debt) should be separated from convicted criminals, and young prisoners from adults. The congress could not precisely define for facilities in countries all over the world such terms as “young prisoners” and “adults,” nor could it specify the criteria for separating prisoners according to types of offense.

The subsection on discipline and punishment insists on firm discipline that does not restrict prisoners more than dictated by the need for safety and order. Prisoners are not to be entrusted with disciplinary duties, they are not to be punished except in accordance with regulations, and they must be informed of the offenses for which they are disciplined. Corporal punishment, detention in a dark cell, and “all cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments” are forbidden as punishments for offenses of a disciplinary nature. Any punishments that might endanger the physical or mental health of a prisoner cannot be imposed without certification of the prisoner’s fitness by a medical officer.

The participants in the congress obviously associated the need for books with the need for religious life. Thus, recreational and instructional books are to be made available to all categories of prisoners, and wherever the number of prisoners of a particular religion warrants, a qualified representative of the religion should be available for counseling and services.

The longest discussion pertains to institutional personnel, who must exhibit “integrity, humanity, professional capacity, and personal suitability.” Knowing full well the difficulty in staffing prisons all over the world with such people, the congress emphasized in this section the importance to the larger community of the social service provided by prison personnel. This section discusses such matters as salaries, work conditions, education and training (including in-service training), and types of specialists needed. The director should be a qualified, full-time person who lives in or near the institution and should speak the language of the majority of the inmates; the director of a women’s facility should be a woman. Close supervision by medical officers is also specified.

The rules applicable to special categories indicate the provisions necessary for prisoners under sentence, prisoners with mental disorders, prisoners awaiting trial, and civil prisoners. Although the congress termed the rules “minimum” ones, few of the world’s penal institutions had attained such standards. It was decided to ask governments throughout the world to consider the adoption of the rules and to issue progress reports to the United Nations every three years.

The congress attempted to reflect the consensus of prevailing thought on the treatment of prisoners and the general management of penal institutions. Like many pronouncements by United Nations bodies, the rules are necessarily expressed in the kind of general terms that almost inevitably emanate from a group representing vastly different cultures from around the world, and this lack of specificity is a drawback. The rules were significant nevertheless because they represented acknowledgment by an international body of the parameters of prisoners’ rights.

The devisers of the minimum rules represented a rather broad spectrum of humanitarian, economic, administrative, social, and psychological thought. They were not a group that could be faulted as being “soft on crime.” Much of the motivation was practical: All over the world, prison experience often made offenders a greater threat to society than they had been previously.

On July 31, 1957, the Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC) of the United Nations passed a resolution urging that the Standard Minimum Rules be widely publicized as possible and that Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld make arrangements to publish information on compliance as it came from various world governments. In addition, ECOSOC urged wide publicity for other recommendations made by the 1955 congress having to do with the selection and training of personnel for penal and correctional institutions, on open penal and correctional institutions, and on general principles of prison labor.


Many writers on prisoners’ rights in the decades following the United Nations’ adoption of the Standard Minimum Rules either explicitly judged the rules to have had little impact or implicitly suggested as much by their inattention to them. Disenchantment with the efficacy of United Nations efforts in general probably played a part informing the consensus, as did a common conviction that rules written so generally as to gain the approval of representatives of many diverse nations must necessarily have few teeth in them.

It is ironic that prisoners’ demands in the Attica Prison riots Attica Prison riots (1971) in New York in September of 1971 included many of the items covered in the Standard Minimum Rules, for example, the needs for a healthier diet and for adequate medical treatment. These issues were subsequently addressed, but unless one or more of the rebelling prisoners had been reading the rules, fear generated by the riots, not the recommendations of the United Nations, motivated such reforms as were achieved. Two years after the riots, G. O. W. Mueller Mueller, G. O. W. , the director of the Criminal Law Education and Research Center at New York University, concluded that the rules “have not yet been complied with” in the United States.

Nevertheless, the Standard Minimum Rules have had an impact. They are invoked from time to time in cases involving prisoners in the United States, and nongovernmental bodies such as the International League of Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists often refer to them. The Canadian Human Rights Act condemns discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, and other usual bases but adds the far less usual “conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.”

Among medical and health professionals, the Standard Minimum Rules have gained widespread attention. A 1972 international symposium on the medical care of prisoners in London disclosed some hopeful signs. The assertion by a professor of criminal law in Warsaw University that Poland observed the rules and had based its penal code partly on them was not seriously challenged in the subsequent discussion. The medical superintendent of Grendon Psychiatric Prison in England (which he reported as having achieved impressive results with prisoners plagued by mental disorders) insisted that England and Wales had “advanced well beyond the Standard Minimum Rules for the medical care and protection of prisoners.”

The process of educating governments and the general public in neglected rights of prisoners is a slow one, and it is extremely difficult to point to any individual who has unequivocally benefited from the Standard Minimum Rules, but they have increasingly become part of the atmosphere in which penologists, criminologists, and legislators work. It appears, however, that prisoners’ rights are unlikely to become a major element in the social consciousness of very many people without direct experience of prison life. Even discussions of prisoners taken in the so-called war on terror rarely address the conditions of domestic prisoners incarcerated in “normal” prisons. As a matter of political realism, however, prisoner rights, like all human rights, must be first and foremost guaranteed within the legal systems of governments, since the international mechanisms and rules are not self-enforcing. United Nations;prisoners’ rights[prisoners rights] Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners Prisoners’ rights[Prisoners rights] Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Roger S. “Human Rights and the U.N. Committee on Crime Prevention and Control.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 506 (November, 1989): 68-84. Of the articles in this volume, which focuses on the topic “Human Rights Around the World,” Clark’s is most relevant to the rights of prisoners. It places the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in the context of other standard-setting instruments of the United Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heller, Peter B. The United Nations Under Dag Hammarskjöld, 1953-1961. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Discusses the principal issues Hammarskjöld faced during his eight and a half years as secretary-general of the United Nations. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luini del Russo, Alessandra. “Prisoners’ Right of Access to the Courts: A Comparative Analysis of Human Rights Jurisprudence in Europe.” In Legal Rights of Prisoners, edited by Geoffrey P. Alpert. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980. Luini del Russo’s essay reviews the international approach to an important aspect of human rights protection for prisoners in the wake of the Standard Minimum Rules. The extensive notes identify many specific cases and documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Medical Care of Prisoners and Detainees. Ciba Foundation Symposium, new series, vol. 16. New York: Associated Scientific, 1973. This book is especially valuable in two ways: It prints as an appendix the entire text of the Standard Minimum Rules, and it discusses in detail the extent to which the considerable number of rules bearing on prisoners’ health were being implemented around the world at its date of publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robbins, Ira P., ed. Theory, Litigation, Practice. Vol. 2 in Prisoners’ Rights Sourcebook. New York: Clark Boardman, 1980. Essentially a collection of essays focusing on American prison law, litigation, the enforcing of prisoners’ rights, and related topics. Devised as a practical handbook, this volume portrays bluntly the gap between theory and practice in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodley, Nigel S. The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Includes a chapter on the United Nations. Several appendixes are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudovsky, David. The Rights of Prisoners: The Basic ACLU Guide to a Prisoner’s Rights. New York: Avon Books, 1973. This book is intended as a practical guide to the rights of Americans under present law and an encouragement to exercise them. Contains many references to cases in federal and state courts pertaining to prisoners’ rights.

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Categories: History