What “The Mandela Rules” mean for American prisons.

What “The Mandela Rules” mean for American prisons.

For 55 years, the international community has used the “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” as a guideline for structuring their criminal justice and penal systems. The document had never been amended (aside from one additional rule in 1977), let alone revised, until this year. On May 22nd, the United Nations ushered in a new set of standards named after one of the most globally recognized figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. The resolution in favor of adopting the text of “The Mandela Rules” is expected to be presented to the UN General Assembly later this year.

It represents a dramatic expansion of the rules governing our prisons, most poignant of which is the creation of a framework that recognizes human rights doctrines as critical to structuring our penal system. It’s an incredibly important development and one I, and other advocates for prisoners’ rights, are extremely happy to see; it represents a fundamental shift in how we perceive the role of incarceration in society.

Yet the news of this landmark event barely hit the media’s radar when it passed a few weeks ago. There has been no official statement from the Office of the President or other significant political representatives. So why is that? Could it be that there is a hint of irony to the United States to the few self-congratulatory approbations that appeared? Because while the US is touting the importance of this document in its provision of technical assistance to partner countries, there are serious questions as to whether we are adhering to either these rules or the prior document. And by failing to even inform the public of their existence—let alone our support of them—I believe we are sending a clear message to the world: “These principles apply only when it suits our interests.”

Whereas the previous document provided relatively vague guidelines, The Mandela Rules are far more precise, including exact instructions for acceptable actions in a variety of penal areas—areas in which we have been incredibly remiss.

Examination of the revised document’s newest “Basic Rules” reveals several problematic areas for America’s current criminal justice system:

  • The inherent dignity and value of inmates as human beings shall be respected.
  • Self-perceived gender shall be logged upon admission.
  • Protection from degrading or inhumane treatment or punishment.
  • The primary purposes of imprisonment are to protect society from crime and reduce recidivism.
  • Reasonable accommodations for physical, mental, and other disabilities shall be made.
  • Solitary confinement beyond 15 days is prohibited; confinement is only a last resort and prohibited for prisoners with mental or physical disabilities.
  • Prisoners have the right to the same standards of care available in the community, free of charge and without discrimination based on legal status.
  • Health services should be coordinated with public health agencies, including ensuring continuity of care as relates to HIV, drug dependence, and tuberculosis.
  • An interdisciplinary health team which includes expertise in psychology and psychiatry, and a dentist, shall be available.
  • Clinical decisions may not be overruled by non-medical staff.
  • Physicians or a public health body will regularly inspect food.
  • Mental illnesses must be taken into account prior to disciplinary actions.
  • Prisoners accused of offenses must be given adequate resources to prepare their defense.
  • Disciplinary measures may not include the prohibition of family contact beyond a limited time period.

In the years since I began my incarceration, I have witnessed rampant violations of all of these rules at just a couple of facilities, and my examination of the document has only just begun. By advocating for the implementation of these rules, should not we, as a nation, demonstrate at least minimal commitment to the values and principles we’re espousing?

Penal Reform International has expressed its enthusiasm for assisting jurisdictions across the world in implementing these rules. So it is hoped that our criminal justice system will readily ask for such assistance rather than focus on how other nations will integrate the rules into their systems.

So when will the United States’ commitment to these values and principles be demonstrated? The Principles, like many important UN conventions, are not legally binding, so of course, the US is not legally required to ensure compliance within its borders. But one would help that we would demonstrate at least a moral conviction to these standards while we admonish other states for not doing so.

Certain attendees at the UN Meetings of the Crime Commission have praised the role the US played at the meetings, and certainly, there’s little question of the importance of our presence there. Luis E. Arreaga, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, proclaimed the US’ support of the rules. Yet should we have to congratulate our representatives for agreeing that humans—including those incarcerated—be treated as such?