The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were first adopted in 1957, and in 2015 were revised and adopted as the Nelson Mandela Rules. The revision process was initiated in 2010 when it was recognised that while the Rules were a key standard for the treatment of prisoners globally and were widely used, there had been major developments in human rights and criminal justice since 1957.

The Standard Minimum Rules are often regarded by states as the primary – if not only – source of standards relating to treatment in detention, and are the key framework used by monitoring and inspection mechanisms in assessing the treatment of prisoners.

The revised Standard Minimum Rules were adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly. The revised Rules are now known as the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’ to honour the legacy of the late President of South Africa, ‘who spent 27 years in prison in the course of his struggle for global human rights, equality, democracy and the promotion of a culture of peace’.

Download a copy of the Nelson Mandela Rules or Prison Reform International's short guide to the rules

Eight substantive areas were revised:

1. Respect for prisoners’ inherent dignity

The principle of treatment with respect for the dignity and value as human beings and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment have been incorporated throughout the Rules, including as a basic principle in Rule 6 and by providing guidance on searches of prisoners for example.

2. Medical and health services

The Rules clarify that healthcare of prisoners is a state responsibility, and should be of an equal standard to that available in the community and organised in close relationship to the general public health administration. There is detailed guidance on healthcare in prison and on the role of healthcare staff.

3. Disciplinary measures and sanctions

Comprehensive changes in this area include updated guidance on the use of instruments of restraint, procedural safeguards in disciplinary procedures and clarification of prohibited disciplinary sanctions (eg restriction of drinking water). As an overarching principle, prison staff are encouraged to use conflict prevention mechanisms to prevent disciplinary offences and resolve conflicts. Limitations on the use of solitary confinement (which is also defined) are included for the first time in an international standard.

4. Investigations of deaths and torture in custody

The updated provisions introduce the obligations of the prison in cases of any death, disappearance or serious injury. These include obligations on reporting, investigations and notifying family or friends. Prisoner file management requirements were also amended in recognition of their role in recording incidents and complaints.

5. Protection of vulnerable groups

Revisions to provisions for prisoners with particular vulnerabilities were limited, but overall the Rules now clarify that prisons need to identify the individual needs of prisoners and that measures taking account of such needs must not be regarded as discriminatory. Some provisions were incorporated on children imprisoned with their parent and outdated terminology regarding prisoners with disabilities was changed.

6. Access to legal representation

Provisions were updated and expanded to cover not only pre-trial detention and criminal proceedings, but requirements of legal counsel more comprehensively based on the 2012 UN Legal Aid Principles and Guidelines. The Rules also clarify that prisoners are allowed to keep in their possession documents relating to their legal proceedings.

7. Complaints and independent inspection

Provisions dealing with information for prisoners and access to complaints mechanisms has been updated, as well as protection against retaliation, intimidation or other negative consequences as a result of a complaint. The impact of external monitoring was acknowledged by introducing the requirement of a twofold system of regular inspections, internal as well as external by an independent body. The revised Rules specify the powers of inspectors and require written inspection reports and encourage their publication.

8. Training of staff

Provisions on training were updated to clarify the necessity of training for staff prior to entry into service as well as ongoing in-service training, both of which should reflect contemporary evidence-based best practice. A list of training requirements includes security and safety, the concept of dynamic security, and the use of force and instruments of restraint, as well as management of violent offenders, with due consideration to preventive and defusing techniques.