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  • Human Rights Compliance and the Role of External Prison Oversight
  • Ivan Zinger1

Introduction to the special issue

Correctional authorities around the world are under increasing legislative and societal pressure to introduce more austere ("no-frills") prison regimes, impose new restrictions on prisoners, and tighten security requirements. Even traditionally liberal and open European regimes have taken measures in recent years to introduce a more Spartan and, in some instances, more punitive prison regime in response to the prevailing law-and-order agenda. The war on terrorism has also provided "legitimacy" for some countries to further oppress their prisoner populations – not only convicted and alleged terrorists have been affected but, in some instances, the entire prison population. In this societal context, those responsible for administering prisons are now faced with an ever more difficult task in ensuring legal standards of humane detention. Guaranteeing the human rights of prisoners will continue to be an important challenge for many countries, including advanced democracies such as Canada.

The best argument for observing human rights standards is not merely that they are required by international or domestic law but that they actually work better than any known alternative – for offenders, for correctional staff, and for society at large. Compliance with human rights obligations increases, though it does not guarantee, the odds of releasing a more responsible citizen. In essence, a prison environment respectful of human rights is conducive to positive change, whereas an environment of abuse, disrespect, and discrimination has the opposite effect: Treating prisoners with humanity actually enhances public safety. Moreover, through respecting the human rights of prisoners, society conveys a strong message that everyone, regardless of their circumstance, race, social status, gender, religion, and so on, is to be treated with inherent respect and dignity. [End Page 127]

The best approach to ensure that the rule of law is upheld in corrections is to conceptualize the business of corrections as a human rights business. The same can also be said of the business of policing and the business of national security. When government has exceptional authority over its citizens, the potential for abuse of powers is great, and the protections of fundamental rights must be a core preoccupation of those empowered and trusted with those exceptional powers. In a correctional context, every aspect of the prisoner's life is heavily regulated by correctional authorities. Correctional authorities make thousands of decisions every day that affect prisoners' fundamental rights (e.g., use of force, segregation, searches, transfers, visiting). Routine daily activities, such as whether prisoners can contact family and friends, whether and how they can practice their religion or access medical services, and when they can eat and sleep, are all regulated by correctional authorities. Without recognition that the business of corrections is all about promoting and monitoring respect for human rights, preventing human rights violations, and detecting and remedying human rights violations, systemic abuses of power are inevitable.

Perhaps the most provocative account of the challenges faced by correctional authorities in Canada and abroad in fully meeting their respective human rights obligations is that offered by Mary Campbell (1997), who has contributed to this special issue a commentary on whether prisoners' sentences should be altered in cases of gross violations of human rights by correctional authorities. This senior federal public servant was instrumental in developing one of the world's best correctional legislative frameworks – Canada's 1992 Corrections and Conditional Release Act. She writes that a "natural drift" toward "callousness at best and brutality at worst" (1997, 327) exists in corrections and that "a lack of genuine commitment to a culture of human rights behind bars can swiftly return prison culture to the 'dark ages' where expediency rules rather than the law" (323). She then argues that a strong human rights legislative framework paired with effective external monitoring mechanisms serves as a crucial counter-weight against that "natural drift." The "natural drift" can have a still more brutal, and even deadly, impact on citizens living where democracy has yet to be realized. Denis Langlois's well-informed description of some prison regimes in South America in this special issue tells a disturbing tale of abuse and torture and how this "natural drift" can be...


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pp. 127-140
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