Explainer: International Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners

To fully understand the treatment of prisoners in Singapore prisons, it is important to weigh their real experiences against international standards.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, explain and describe the basic conditions in which prisoners must be housed. Here, we set out a summary of the 122 rules that are in place to provide guidance on prison management, and outline the minimum standards on the treatment of prisoners.

Basic Principles

  • Prisoners should be treated with respect as human beings, and be protected from cruel, degrading treatment and punishment.
  • Rules should be applied impartially and without discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinions, nationality or social status. 
  • Prison administrations should make all reasonable accommodations to ensure that prisoners with physical, mental or other disabilities have full and equal access to prison life.

Living Conditions

Accomodation, Hygiene, Healthcare

  • The following should be provided: 
    • Individual cells for prisoners in which to spend the night. 
    • Suitable dormitories, meeting health requirements for light, space, ventilation, and heating, as well as windows and/or artificial light.
    • Necessary sanitation, bathing, and shower installations for prisoners to shower “as frequently as necessary for general hygiene according to season and geographical region”.  
    • Necessary water and toiletries for prisoners to keep themselves clean, as well as clothing suitable for the climate.
    • A separate bed and sufficient bedding, which should be clean when issued.

Food & Sport

  • Well-prepared food of wholesome quality must be prepared and served at the usual hours. 
  • Water must be available whenever needed.
  • At least one hour of exercise outdoors daily should be allowed, if weather permits. 


  • Prisoners must have access to necessary healthcare services free of charge. 
  • Continuity of treatment must be provided including for HIV, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, as well as for drug dependence.
  • Healthcare accessibility extends to mental health, qualified dentists, prompt services in emergency situations, prenatal and postnatal care.
  • Every prisoner must be examined by a physician or qualified provider as soon as possible. 
  • Particular attention should be paid to ill-treatment, psychological distress, suicide and self-harm, adquate treatment of infectious diseases, fitness assessment. 

Restrictions, Discipline, Searches

  • Discipline and order should be maintained with only as much restriction as is necessary for safety, security, and order. 
  • Before sanctions or punishments can be imposed, any mental health concerns and developmental disabilities of a prisoner must be taken into account. 
  • No disciplinary action may amount to indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement corporal or collective punishment. 
    • Solitary confinement is defined as 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact. Prolonged solitary confinement is solitary confinement of more than 15 days. 
    • Solitary confinement should be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review.
  • The health of the prisoner must be taken into account when administering disciplinary sanctions, with medical checks and assistance available. 
  • Chains, iron, and other painful instruments of restraint are prohibited. 
  • Searches of prisoners and cells are not to be used as a means to harass, intimidate, or unnecessarily intrude on privacy. In the event of a strip and body cavity searches, and searches of cells, records must be kept for accountability. Body cavity searches are only to be conducted by qualified healthcare professionals. 

Rights, Information, Access

  • Upon admission, all inmates are to be provided with information (in commonly used languages, or translations if required) on prison laws and regulations, as well as their legal rights, obligations, and all matters necessary for adapting to prison life. 
  • Prisoners should have a daily opportunity to make requests or complaints, with safeguards in place to ensure these are made safely and, if requested, confidentially. 
  • Allegations of torture or abuse must be dealt with immediately, and must result in a prompt and impartial investigation to be conducted by an independent national authority. 
  • Under necessary supervision, inmates should be allowed to communicate with their family and friends regularly, by written correspondence and/or visits. 
  • Prisoners should be given adequate opportunity, time, and facilities to communicate with a legal adviser of their choice (or a legal aid provider) without delay, interception, or censorship, and in full confidentiality – on any legal matter. Consultations may be within sight, but not within hearing, of prison staff.
  • All inmates should be able to notify their family or next of kin on their imprisonment, illnesses or injuries. 
  • A prisoner should immediately be notified of the serious illness or death of a family member or significant other, and be allowed to go to the bedside or funeral of a critically ill or deceased relative or significant other. 

Prison Staff & Administration

  • Prison personnel should be carefully selected to ensure their suitability for the work – integrity, humanity, and professional capacity are essential as are good conduct, efficiency, and physical fitness. 
  • Prison staff should also be trained on national legislation, regulation and policies, international and national instruments with which to guide interaction with inmates, respecting human dignity of all prisoners, and the prohibition of torture and cruel or inhumane punishment. 
  • Other areas of training should include first aid, social care, and identifying mental health issues. As far as possible, prison staff should include a sufficient number of specialists such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, teachers. 
  • Prison staff should not use force except in self-defence or in cases of attempted escape, or active or passive physical resistance to an order based on law or regulations.

What do YOU think of these rules? Are they good enough? What would you change? 

Do you know how Singapore prisons fare against these standards? Transformative Justice Collective has an upcoming report on prison conditions in Singapore, which will shed some light on this.

Some people believe that no matter the conditions, prisons cannot be humane, and that we do not achieve justice, safety or well-being by locking up a segment of the population.

Prison is a form of temporary or permanent social and civil death. Are there other ways we can imagine responding to harm, besides putting people in cages?

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