Australian prisons need to improve to measure up to the UN's Mandela Rules

This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

There's nothing like visiting a prison. Everything is cold and in variations of grey: the walls, the tables, the floor, the locks, the bars. Everything is regulated: where you can walk, what you can carry, where you can sit, and how long you can visit for.

What's so striking about working with people who are locked up, is that their wellbeing – their health and protection – are entirely in the hands of others. From the smallest of things, like bed times, exercise times, and the type of food available; to the biggest of things, like the number of hours spent outside a cell, the level of safety provided by the prison, and access to healthcare. This is why prisoners are so vulnerable to having their rights abused, and why it's so important to set rules around how power is exercised.

The United Nations has just released the "Mandela Rules" – named in honour of the man and the 27 years he endured in prison. They are minimum standards to guide the safe and humane operation of prisons around the world. At the heart of the Rules is the notion that a loss of liberty should never result in a loss of dignity.

Alarmingly, many of Australia's prison practices breach the Mandela Rules. This is something that must be addressed, particularly given Australia is locking up more people than ever before. As prisoner numbers grow, prisons have become more like human warehouses, and less like facilities focused on the rehabilitation and eventual reintegration of prisoners.

Solitary confinement is increasingly used as a management tool around Australia. The Mandela Rules define solitary confinement as confinement for 22 hours or more a day, without meaningful human contact. Prolonged solitary confinement is defined as confinement in excess of 15 days.

The UN is clear that putting young people (under 18 years) in solitary confinement, constitutes inhuman treatment. The same is said for prolonged solitary confinement when used on adults. This is because solitary confinement – being held alone, in a concrete box – unsurprisingly leaves lasting psychological scars.

The UN's Expert on Torture knows this well, having himself been held in solitary confinement. The Human Rights Law Centre sent a request for urgent action to him in relation to concerning practices in the Northern Territory's Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The practices were documented in a recent NT Children's Commissioner Report and included the use of prolonged solitary confinement for 17 days, as well as the use of tear-gas, hooding and cuffing, on detainees as young as 14 years.

I visited a client in Don Dale – a decommissioned adult prison – the day after the Children's Commissioner's report was released. I've been visiting prisons and youth detention facilities for close to a decade now. I've seen children lose their teenage years behind bars and adults kept in conditions that would drive me mad. Obviously I accept that prisons are a necessity, but treating people badly does not make our community safer.   

Almost all prisoners in Australia – both young people and adults – will eventually be released into the community. The median sentence length in Australia for adults is three years. This means we must grapple with the unavoidable reality that the way we treat prisoners today, directly impacts the type of person who is released tomorrow. In other words, treating prisoners humanely is not only the morally right thing to do, it is also in the interests of community safety.

Women are the fastest growing prisoner demographic in Australia. In Western Australia, the Independent Custodial Inspector last year described Bandyup Women's Prison as the most over-crowded, complex and neglected prison in the State. There are so many women in Bandyup that some are required to sleep on the floor of crammed cells, suffering the indignity of their heads abutting the toilet.

One of the first experiences women will have in prison is being strip searched upon entry. Across Australia, prisoners are routinely strip searched when returning from court, after a contact visit with family, plus at any other time the prison deems it necessary.

The Mandela Rules recognise that strip searching is a particularly degrading practice. It's a practice that impacts women most, because many of them have a history of trauma, including sexual assault. Accordingly, the Rules are clear that we must invest in humane alternatives to strip searching – alternatives like the types of scanners we walk through at airports.

Ultimately, the Mandela Rules are a potent reminder that while the term "cruel, inhuman and degrading" might feel remote for many of us living in Australia, it is far from remote for many of Australia's prisoners.

We cannot forget that the starting point for any rights-respecting society is the non-negotiable and simple principle that all people, irrespective of who they are or what they've done, deserve to be treated with dignity.

Ruth Barson is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre. She is on Twitter @RuthHRLC