Conditions of Confinement

Background

While an individual's freedom is more restricted once an individual has been convicted and sentenced to a period of incarceration, they still retain significant rights during their sentence.

International Law

International law provides that certain rights should be retained during an individual's incarceration. Many states have ratified the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners and on 14 December 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed resolution 45/111, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners:

  1. All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.
  2. There shall be no discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  3. It is, however, desirable to respect the religious beliefs and cultural precepts of the group to which prisoners belong, whenever local conditions so require.
  4. The responsibility of prisons for the custody of prisoners and for the protection of society against crime shall be discharged in keeping with a State's other social objectives and its fundamental responsibilities for promoting the well-being and development of all members of society.
  5. Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, where the State concerned is a party, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.
  6. All prisoners shall have the right to take part in cultural activities and education aimed at the full development of the human personality.
  7. Efforts addressed to the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, or to the restriction of its use, should be undertaken and encouraged.
  8. Conditions shall be created enabling prisoners to undertake meaningful remunerated employment which will facilitate their reintegration into the country's labour market and permit them to contribute to their own financial support and to that of their families.
  9. Prisoners shall have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation.
  10. With the participation and help of the community and social institutions, and with due regard to the interests of victims, favourable conditions shall be created for the reintegration of the ex-prisoner into society under the best possible conditions.
  11. The above Principles shall be applied impartially.

United States

On May 23, 2011, the Supreme Court extended the reach of the Eighth Amendment to grant courts the power to limit prison capacity in a case called Brown v. Plata.

The conditions of confinement in the United States are defined mainly from court interpretations of the Eighth Amendment which reads: “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This has been interpreted to imply a right to basic sustenance, which includes adequate medical care. In Brown v. Plata, the Court determined that it was necessary to limit prison population to remedy the violations of basic physical and mental health care. Prison crowding is the root of such issues as: increased spread of communicable diseases, increased violence, insufficient staff and supplies (medical and otherwise), unsanitary conditions, slower and less thorough treatment, reliance, etc. The California prison system currently operates at 200% of the design capacity, some areas exceeding 300% design capacity. By affirming the holding of the district court, the Supreme Court raised the standard of care for prisoners.