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A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management: Handbook for Prison Staff

In 2002 the International Centre for Prison Studies published a handbook for prison staff entitled A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management. This is a practical handbook which describes the internationally agreed standards on the use of imprisonment and conditions of detention and which details guidance for prison staff as to their implementation. It provides a model for good prison management which can be applied in every prison system in the world.

This handbook is intended to assist everyone who has anything to do with prisons. Readers are likely to include government ministers whose portfolio covers parliamentary accountability for prisons, officials who work within Ministries of Justice and other ministries which have oversight of prison issues, as well as intergovernmental agencies. It will also be of interest to a variety of non-governmental organisations and groups from civil society. It should also be made available where possible to prisoners. But its primary audience is intended to be those who work directly with prisons and prisoners. These include national and regional prison administrators. Above all, it is intended for those who actually work in prisons and who deal with prisoners on a day to day basis.

In its work in many countries ICPS came across a common set of problems in many prison systems: overcrowding, disease and ill health, inactivity, violence and abuse, as well as staff who are poorly paid, badly trained and have little respect in society. All of these features have implications for the human rights of prisoners. They also have implications for the way prisons are managed.

There is a general need to recognise that the management of prisons is a key public service and that staff who work in prisons need to be professionally competent. It is important that prisons should be well-managed but this is not sufficient in itself. It is also necessary to check constantly that what is being done and the changes which are being introduced are within an ethical context. In its work ICPS found that a very effective way of ensuring that this context exists is by being aware of the wide range of human rights covenants and standards relating to imprisonment, which most countries have signed up to, and by measuring the operational management of prisons against these standards.

In their work around the world ICPS staff and associates found that prison practitioners respond positively to this approach. They generally welcome the opportunity to measure their work against a set of approved standards. The human rights standards on which the handbook is based do not come from any one country or region; by definition they are international and capable of application in every country. This gives them an objective status which individual prison administrations find both helpful and rigorous.

This human rights approach to prison management is not only ethical; it is also effective. It is a good way to manage prisons. The best prison administrators have long recognised that the key to prison management does not lie in being excessively strict or excessively liberal as circumstances suggest. Instead, it lies in being consistent in the application of a set of professional standards. This handbook provides that set of standards and explains how to apply them.

The project was funded by the Human Rights Policy Department of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

A second edition of the Handbook was published in 2009. It contains updated references throughout and also new chapters on Management of High Security Prisoners and on Foreign National Prisoners. In 2014 ICPS merged with the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research and in 2018 a third edition of the Handbook was published in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross.


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