Prison conditions should not be an additional punishment. The prison sentence is the sanction: it holds an individual accountable for their actions and protects society. It deprives someone of their liberty and impacts on certain other rights, such as freedom of movement, which are the inevitable consequences of imprisonment, but people in prison retain their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
However, in reality prisons often do not meet even the most basic of standards, and many prison staff consider harsh treatment to be a legitimate way to deal with those they supervise.
Living conditions in a prison are among the chief factors determining one’s self-esteem and dignity. People detained in humane detention conditions will be more willing and able to respond to rehabilitative programmes. Those who experience punitive conditions and mistreatment on the other hand are likely to return to society psychologically shattered and in poor or worse state of physical and mental health than when they entered. Humane prison conditions also reduce the prevalence of violence in prisons.
Prisons in over 124 countries exceed their maximum occupancy rate, which results in violence, higher rates of death in custody, a lack of healthcare provision and low rehabilitative opportunities. This is often the result of punitive sentencing and chronic under funding of criminal justice systems, as a result people in prison reside in poor conditions that violate their human rights.
Overcrowded prisons are also likely to have poor sanitary conditions that can facilitate the transmission of communicable diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the dire need to reduce prison overcrowding and improve prison conditions globally. Ensuring humane prison conditions that are in line with international and regional standards for the treatment of people detained is key to the establishment of fair and effective criminal justice systems.
States bear a heightened obligation towards people in prison because when they deprive someone of their liberty, they assume a duty of care. States are also obliged to ensure that detainees are treated humanely. This includes providing adequate accommodation, food and water, sanitation and healthcare, access to light, fresh air and exercise. There are international standards relating to clothing and bedding, contact with the outside world and access to legal representation. Rules regulating the prison regime cover discipline and punishment and instruments of restraint to ensure fair and equal treatment and safeguard against abuse and arbitrary application. There are also specific standards which address the needs of particular groups, such as women and children.