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The “Nelson Mandela Rules” call for better treatment of prisoners

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison in a solitary cell. He had a bucket for a toilet and was permitted one 30-minute visit each year.

This is the man who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and put an end to the vicious rule of Apartheid in South Africa.

That he was able to maintain his resolve for nearly 3 decades is testament to a truly superhuman drive.

Not everyone who endures such hardship can come out on the other side to make the world a better place. Many people are crushed by the experience of prison.

I recently read about Kalief Browder, a 16-year old boy from Harlem, New York, who was wrongly accused of stealing a backpack. He spent nearly 1,000 days, more than 700 in solitary confinement, awaiting a trial on Riker’s Island for a crime he didn’t commit. He was regularly beaten by guards and other inmates.

He committed suicide not long after being released.  

A year or so ago, I read a memoir called “For a Song and Hundred Songs” by the Chinese poet Liao Yiwu, documenting his decade-plus stay in prison after protesting the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

He was kept in appalling conditions. Prisoners were stacked into small rooms where they could barely stretch out to sleep, routinely tortured and sexually abused by guards and other inmates, fed horrific food and were at risk of being thrown into wet, pitch black holes for months at a time.

Sadly, such situations are too common around the world. The human rights of prisoners are violated every day.

Let’s brainstorm for a moment--what is the point of prison, anyway?

To my understanding, prisons are meant to rehabilitate criminals, to ideally guide them to becoming productive citizens after their time served.

By contrast, the US prison system seems designed to create lifelong prisoners by providing minimal educational or training opportunities and barring ex-convicts from reentering the workforce, therefore making the recidivism rate as high as possible.

The US State Department determined that 10.1 million prisoners officially existed in the world in 2012. Many more are unaccounted for, caught up in military detention, administrative detention or just outside of normal law and order. And there’s probably a lot of regular prisoners just not tallied.

Many prisoners are beaten and killed by guards and other inmates, denied anything close to good healthcare, stowed in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, fed terrible food and denied fair legal representation.

Here’s a list of countries that Human Rights Watch identifies as tolerating widespread prison beatings: Angola, Armenia, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and the United States. This is not an exhaustive list.

Because of the global nature of prison abuse, the UN has released a new set of minimum standards called the “Nelson Mandela Rules.”

The rules call for all prisoners to receive adequate health care to cut down on high rates of infectious diseases and, more fundamentally, to maintain basic health.

The ban on torture and physical abuse is renewed.

Solitary confinement is addressed and 15 days now constitutes prolonged solitary confinement, only to be used in the most serious cases. In the US, where 80,000-100,000 prisoners are held in solitary on any given day, it is not unusual for someone to spend decades in isolation.

The consequences of this isolation can include, “psychiatric disorder characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems...anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.”

The rules ask prisons to be more thorough in the examination of inmate deaths and to curb intrusive body searches.

Discrimination is another area addressed. Gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners are regularly mistreated in prisons and this cannot be tolerated.

Finally, the rules call for an end to imprisonment for debt.

Of course, these rules are not definitive. The UN can’t force any country to adopt them, but they can apply pressure and shape the international discussion. Shedding light on abuse increases the possibility for justice.

Human rights for everyone have to be protected in all instances. Going to prison understandably entails limited rights, but it should not mean a total suspension of rights.

To end this abuse, countries have to hold one another accountable. This is where the Global Goals come in. If every country commits to Goal 16: Peace and Justice, then the everyday abuse of prisoners will come to an end and human rights will be upheld.

So go to TAKE ACTION NOW to call on world leaders to embrace this vital goal.