UN’s new ‘Mandela Rules’ shine a light on sub-standard Australian prison conditions and practices

Australia’s treatment of prisoners falls short of new international standards adopted by the United Nations General Assembly last week.

The Nelson Mandela Rules – named in honour of Mr Mandela and the many years he spent in prison – are recognition of the need to protect prisoner’s human rights around the world.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners are a reminder that Australia needs to change its practices to meet contemporary and accepted standards.

“Unfortunately conditions in Australian prisons are generally getting worse. Given our prison population is growing exponentially, these revised standards are a timely opportunity for Australia to improve because it’s clear that a number of our practices are outdated and risk being inhumane,” said Ms Barson.

- Related: Opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald - Australian prisons need to improve to measure up to the UN's Mandela Rules - 

The Mandela Rules provide detailed guidance in relation to a wide variety of prison practices and shows that Australia’s treatment of prisoners is falling short in three principle areas: the inappropriate use of solitary confinement; the over use of strip searches; and inadequate access to healthcare.

“Solitary confinement is an inherently dangerous and damaging practice, and undermines prisoner rehabilitation, yet prisons around Australia continue to use solitary confinement as a management tool, including on women and young people. The Mandela rules are clear that Australia should be unequivocally moving away from such an inhumane practice,” says Ms Barson.

The Rules define solitary confinement as confinement for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. The rules say that women and young people (under 18 years old) should never be subject to solitary confinement, and prohibit the use of prolonged solitary confinement, defined as confinement in excess of 15 days.

The Rules explain that use of force against prisoners is only appropriate in very exceptional circumstances. Ms Barson said that a number of practices in Australia’s poor performing jurisdictions, namely the Northern Territory and Western Australia, clearly fall short of the Rules.

“The tear gassing of young people in the Northern Territory’s youth detention facility late last year, as well as holding young people in solitary confinement for 17 consecutive days, clearly breach the Mandela Rules,” said Ms Barson.

The Rules are also clear that strip searching should only be used where absolutely necessary, and that countries should develop alternatives.

“Prisons routinely strip search prisoners. The Mandela Rules urge countries to move away from strip searching because such invasive searches risk being degrading and have adverse impacts, particularly on more vulnerable prisoners such as young people and women, many of whom have a history of sexual assault,” said Ms Barson.

The Rules clarify that prisoners should be provided with health care services of the same standard as available in the community – which in many Australian prisons is not the case with prisoners denied access to mental health treatment, drug treatment and dental care.

“We have a long way to go when it comes to implementing human rights compliant prison practices, but these new Mandela Rules provide a contemporary blueprint to guide prison management in a way which is both safe and humane. The primary purpose of prison must be rehabilitation and it’s clear that this will ensure the community is safer in the long run,” said Ms Barson.

Ms Barson said another key gap in Australia’s practice that the new Rules highlight is the lack of independent prison oversight mechanisms.

The Human Rights Law Centre has called on all states and territories to commit to implement the new Rules.

“A loss of liberty should not result in a loss of dignity. Australia should move to fully implement the Mandela Rules because it’s clear that a number of our prison practices are outdated and in breach of Australia’s human rights obligations,” said Ms Barson.

A full copy of the Mandela Rules can be found online here.

Related note: The HRLC recently sought urgent UN intervention regarding the mistreatment of young people in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth justice facility.

For further information or comments, please contact:
Ruth Barson, HRLC Senior Lawyer, on 0417 773 037 or ruth.barson@hrlc.org.au