UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisons (2015 Rev)

'The Nelson Mandela Rules'

The "Nelson Mandela Rules" are a revision of the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR). The revised rules were adopted by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna, Austria on 22 May 2015.

The revision focussed on nine thematic areas including:

  • Prison health care;
  • Restrictions, discipline and sanctions;
  • Restraints;
  • Cell searches;
  • Contact with the outside world;
  • Prisoner complaints, and;
  • Investigations and inspections.

One of the most important revisions was in the area of discipline and the use of solitary confinement. For the first time, solitary confinement is clearly defined and strict limitations are placed on its use. The full text of the revised rules can be found here.

'Mandela Rules' Relating to Solitary Confinement (selection)

Rule 43

1. In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be prohibited:
(a) Indefinite solitary confinement;
(b) Prolonged solitary confinement;
(c) Placement of a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell;
(d) Corporal punishment or the reduction of a prisoner’s diet or drinking water;
(e) Collective punishment.

2. Instruments of restraint shall never be applied as a sanction for disciplinary offences.

3. Disciplinary sanctions or restrictive measures shall not include the prohibition of family contact. The means of family contact may only be restricted for a limited time period and as strictly required for the maintenance of security and order.

Rule 44

For the purpose of these rules, solitary confinement shall refer to the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. Prolonged solitary confinement shall refer to solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days.

Rule 45

1. Solitary confinement shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorization by a competent authority. It shall not be imposed by virtue of a
prisoner’s sentence.

2. The imposition of solitary confinement should be prohibited in the case of prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their conditions would be exacerbated by such measures. The prohibition of the use of solitary confinement and similar measures in cases involving women and children, as referred to in other United Nations standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice,28 continues to apply.

​Rule 46

1. Health-care personnel shall not have any role in the imposition of disciplinary sanctions or other restrictive measures. They shall, however, pay particular attention to the health of prisoners held under any form of involuntary separation, including by visiting such prisoners on a daily basis and providing prompt medical assistance and treatment at the request of such prisoners or prison staff.

2. Health-care personnel shall report to the director, without delay, any adverse effect of disciplinary sanctions or other restrictive measures on the physical or mental health of a prisoner subjected to such sanctions or measures and shall advise the director if they consider it necessary to terminate or alter them for physical or mental health reasons.

3. Health-care personnel shall have the authority to review and recommend changes to the involuntary separation of a prisoner in order to ensure that such separation does not exacerbate the medical condition or mental or physical disability of the prisoner.

​Related information and materials:

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) press release on the adoption of the Mandela Rules

Prison Reform International (PRI) briefing, blog, podcast and background documents on the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules

World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Europe press release

Essex paper 3: Initial guidance on the interpretation and implementation of the UN Nelson Mandela Rules Based on deliberations at an expert meeting organised by Penal Reform International and the Essex Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, 7-8 April 2016

​Monitoring and Evaluating Solitary Confinement by Sharon Shalev. In ICPA External Prison Oversight and Human Rights Network Newsletter 2, March 2019