Human Rights in Prison – A System in Need of Reform?

Human Rights in Prison – A System in Need of Reform?

The European Convention on Human Rights, as introduced into the United Kingdom by the Council of Europe, contains within it the rights and freedoms which were decided upon as being essential to the functioning of a proper society. Some are entwined with the legal system; the right to life and the offence of murder for example. When imprisoned, however, a prisoner may find that some of their rights may be limited or removed. Despite this being accepted in many ways by society, the prison system being a somewhat essential establishment, it has come to the attention of many in recent years that perhaps the lack of human rights within prisons in England and Wales is a violation which is unwarranted.

Recent research on the state of Prisons in England and Wales is unsettling at best. A rising prison population leads the way for issues of overcrowding, poor living conditions and a risk of mental health issues which can, and have, proven fatal.

The recent death of two inmates at HMP Lewes which was believed to be self inflicted, has been linked to the overcrowding of the prison. When surveyed, over ¼ of prisoners in Lewes admitted to feeling depressed or even suicidal, a frankly alarming statistic.

Numerous reports on the subject have defined various factors which may contribute to the current state of the system and most cite two main issues to be resolved: overcrowding and a lack of Prison staff.


Lack of Staff

Staff shortages mean that prisoners can spend large portions of days confined to their cell, a serious concern for mental health.

However, there are issues with officer training which could, in emergency situations, be the difference between someone living and dying. Within a report by HM Inspectorate, it was found that many officers would not be able to respond properly in the event of an incident of serious self harm. Not only are staff not equipped to deal with these incidents but shortages of staff in general mean that those within prisons cannot hope to get the care and attention they need.

One suggestion made was to ensure that employment in the Prison Service is attractive to potential frontline officers, who are ultimately putting themselves in danger in the course of that employment. Benefits including healthcare and pension plans could encourage a rise in applicants which would in turn see an improvement in the quality of service.


Overcrowding has become a major problem within the Prison System in recent years. In June 2017 there were 75 prisons in England and Wales exceeding operational capacity, meaning there were too many prisoners for proper functioning of that establishment.

The Bromley Briefings of Autumn last year revealed conditions which ‘appalled’ the HM Inspectorate. Overcrowding means cells of insufficient size are being used to house more than one prisoner. Article 3 of the ECHR considers degrading treatment to be in direct violation of a person’s human rights and these are certainly potentially degrading conditions.

A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons is damning in this sense, where it was highlighted that prisoners were only able to use toilet facilities a few feet from cellmates, with some even being inadequately screened. Not only is this degrading for those involved but also unsanitary in an area where the prisoners are spending much time, as well as consuming meals there in some cases.

With staff shortages and overcrowding, the issue of violent assaults has become more prominent, meaning the safety of both prisoners and officers is at risk. Assaults have almost doubled since 2007, with the 2015 Harris Review on suicide in prisons linking this increase, again, to less staff to deal with incidents of intimidation or assault between inmates.

As well as violence, death from suicide has also increased. Lack of resources for those suffering coupled with a lack of officers to ensure anyone at risk is being watched, has resulted in numerous deaths. This is a failure of the state to adequately protect those under its care, a violation of ECHR Article 2.

Of course increasing staff should ensure that there is some improvement in meeting the needs of the system, however it must also be considered that prison need not be the only punishment for offenders. Increases to those being kept in custody needs to be looked at in terms of the offences committed and in relation to rehabilitation and chances of reoffending.

Human Rights

It seems fair to state that the prison system in England and Wales needs to be reformed with some urgency, if only to ensure the protection of those human rights which are considered absolute. Being charged with an offence does not negate the necessity for basic human rights, and more needs to be done to ensure that this is not leading to fatal consequences.

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