As an aspect of human rights, persons in detention have the protection of a range of international instruments and standards which are binding on governments to the extent that the norms set out in them explicate the broader standards contained in human rights treaties.

The underlying assumption of the concept of prisoners’ rights as upheld by a number of international declarations and national constitutions is that people who are detained or imprisoned do not cease to be human beings, no matter how serious the associated crime.

  • The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners approved by the United Nations in 1957, inspired the Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia, which sets standards for the conduct of prisons in Australia.
  • Most relevantly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture give wide protection to prisoners rights, and require prohibition of acts of torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

All these instruments clearly reaffirm the tenet that prisoners retain their fundamental human rights. The UN Human Rights Committee has explained that states have “a positive obligation toward persons who are particularly vulnerable because of their status as persons deprived of liberty.” Significantly, the UN Human Rights Committee has also stressed that the obligation to treat persons deprived of their liberty with dignity and humanity is a fundamental and universally applicable rule, not dependent on the material resources available to the state party. Australian courts have recognised that where possible our laws should be interpreted and developed consistently with our international obligations. The international standards and the binding treaties have set up benchmarks for prison conditions. That is, they should also be used as political tools, and should apply to law reform, policy making and effective implementation.


CJC emphasises the importance of engaging a range of perspectives in the development of justice/prisoner/detention policies and programs. The participation of affected communities, families, prisoners and ex-prisoners as well as those involved in service delivery is critical.

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