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United Nations Standard Minimum Rules
For the Treatment of Prisoners

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The most widely known, accessible and comprehensive international document regulating prison conditions and prisoner treatment around the world is the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs). Since the SMRs embody a greater level of practical detail about how prisoners should be treated than is generally to be found in international conventions and covenants, these model standards have become an enormously important point of reference for defining what constitutes humane treatment in the prison setting. Although not a legally enforceable human rights instrument per se, the SMRs have been used by national and international courts and non-governmental human rights organizations to provide guidance in interpreting binding human rights norms and standards, including the International Covenant and Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The SMRs were adopted in 1955 at the first United Nations (UN) Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders and approved by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1957. ECOSOC recommended that states adopt the rules and conduct compliance surveys every five years.

It was not until the Fifth UN Congress in 1975, however, that Canada's Delegation officially endorsed the SMRs, by agreeing to consider embodying them within both federal and provincial legislative frameworks. Canadian practice in both law and policy indicates a broad acceptance of the document's underlying principles and standards. Canadian law and correctional policy have taken into account these essential UN rules: living accommodations which are appropriately heated, ventilated and cleaned; nutritional food; appropriate bedding and clothing regularly laundered; regular exercise; access to the same standard of medical services as the general public enjoys; access to books and other educational materials; special requirements for women prisoners covering pregnancy, childbirth and child care; prohibition of corporal punishment, solitary confinement and other cruel, unusual, and or degrading treatment; respect for religious and cultural differences; opportunities to engage in meaningful work, programs and activities that have some relevance to life outside prison; opportunities to remain in contact with friends and family; and the right to be reasonably prepared for eventual return to the community. Correctional authorities must provide for all of these things - and more - if they are to be found in compliance with the basic minimum standards to which the world community is expected to adhere.

When the 95 individual articles that comprise the SMRs are reduced to their essence, three fundamental human rights principles clearly emerge. Firstly, a prisoner's sense of dignity and worth as a human being must be respected and maintained through the entire course of their imprisonment. Secondly, the suffering that results from the loss of liberty and freedom by the fact of incarceration is punishment enough. Finally, prisons should not be punishing places; rather, they should help prisoners rehabilitate themselves.

The fact that many states, including Canada, have incorporated these set of principles and rules in the legislative design of their correctional systems may be taken as evidence that the SMRs are now considered an essential element of international and, indeed, domestic human rights standards. Still, 40 years after their initial adoption, certain rules have not been fully implemented and remain a challenge to correctional authorities. For instance, Canada still practices "double-bunking" of inmates in cells designed for one; permits some young offenders to serve their prison sentences in adult institutions; does not use the SMRs in the training of correctional personnel, and; does not distribute the rules to every prisoner upon their initial reception.