By: Simon B
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The laws and rights of prisoners
All citizens in the UK are entitled to certain rights, including those held at Her Majesty’s pleasure i.e. prisoners.
- Supporting prisoners throughout their sentence including challenging poor conditions and medical issues
- Supporting prisoners through the parole process
- Providing representation, especially at disciplinary hearings
- Ensuring that a prisoner’s categorisation is appropriate
- Representing families who are party to coroners’ inquests (whether relating to deaths in police, prison custody or other circumstances.
Prisoners enjoy basic rights that are protected in law. For example, they have the right to food and water, protection from assault and access to the courts.
They are legally entitled to contact family and loved ones, either via prison visits or over the phone and can write letters to whomever they choose once a week (as long as the letter adheres to certain rules and the recipient is approved by the prison governor.)
Prisoners will also obviously have fewer rights than law-abiding citizens. For example, they can be searched at any time and are not allowed to leave their prison.
They can be punished by the prison governor or a district judge if their behaviour breaches the rules in place at any time.
In addition, prisoners are prohibited from voting in elections.
The rules on prisoners’ rights are available in all prison libraries. If you’re held in prison, you can ask to see the prison standing orders and the prison service instructions which set out your rights.
You should also receive the guide to prisoners’ rights, which has been written by the Prison Service and the Prison Reform Trust, upon your arrival.
Disabled prisoners will be given a guide specifically for them.
Human Rights of Prisoners
The human rights of prisoners in the UK have been a point of contention for many years. There are those who believe that all people should have access to certain human rights, regardless of who they are and what they have done in the past.
On the other hand, many argue that the very act of committing a crime against someone is a violation of their human rights, and as such, anyone found guilty of a crime should have their own human rights revoked.
Whatever your perspective might be, while detention in prison will result in the compromise and removal of some human rights, there are other human rights that every individual is entitled to under the European Convention on Human Rights, whether they are in prison or not. These rights allow them, among other things:
- the right to food and water
- an education
- a solicitor and private legal counsel
- freedom from discrimination and harassment
- good healthcare
- communication with those outside prisons
- freedom of religion
- the right to marry and start a family.
The application of some of these rights can vary depending on the circumstances of each prisoner. For example, an adult prisoner’s right to education could be applied in the form of optional evening classes, or even the right to study for qualifications whilst in prison. On the other hand, a young prisoner below school leaving age will be entitled to at least 15 hours of education or vocational training every week.
Rules on discrimination can apply in different ways also. For example, all prisoners should be free from racial abuse, but prisoners with disabilities also need to have allowances made for them if they would otherwise have difficulty using prison facilities and services.
Reasonable Compromise of Prisoner Rights
Under the European Convention on Human Rights, any country signed up to the Convention can restrict the human rights of their prisoners if it is in the interest the people of that country to do so.
For example, Article 5, the right to liberty and security, allows for the restriction among other forms and reasons for detention. Essentially, the right to liberty and security comes with a number of provisos for locking individuals up – whether this refers to a long term prison sentence or a few hours in the cells without charge.
Article 5 also allows for lawful detention for other more unusual reasons, including:
- alcohol addiction
- drug addiction
- prevention of the spread of infectious disease
- individuals who are not of sound mind.
These provisions allow for lawful detention in psychiatric secure units (mental hospitals) in the UK – however, an individual can only be detained if they are considered to be a considerable risk to themselves or others.
Another right denied by a prisoner’s detention comes under Article 4 of the Convention, the right to be free from forced labour and slavery. Forced labour is illegal in the UK under any other circumstances, but human rights law makes a specific dispensation that forced labour can be imposed on those in jail, for a maximum of ten hours per day.
However, a prisoner can only be made to work if he or she is considered fit to do so. A prisoner should also be excused from work on particular days if it would go against his or her religious beliefs to work on those days.
Other Rights Compromises
There are other situations in which prisoners have their rights limited or could have them limited depending on their circumstances. While prisoners can stay in touch with those on the outside, they cannot have access to computers, mobile phones or the internet.
This limitation also applies to use social networking sites – a prisoner could not post updates on their social networking accounts, even if they asked someone else to do it for them outside.
Another example of a reasonable restriction can be applied to the education of a prisoner at school age. He or she may be removed from education if it is necessary to do so, to prevent disruption or for security reasons.