United Nations prison-related standards and norms

For over 50 years, the United Nations has explored ways in which criminal justice systems can operate more effectively and humanely. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the first legal instrument in the vast body of standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice, was adopted in 1955. Since then, the organization has developed a set of basic principles covering such areas as the independence of the judiciary, protection of victims, alternatives to imprisonment, police use of force, mutual legal assistance and extradition.

More than 100 countries worldwide have relied on these standards and norms in writing their national laws and policies in crime prevention and criminal justice. Given the vast differences in legal, social and economic conditions worldwide, it is not possible to apply all the provisions everywhere, all the time. However, they represent the minimum conditions which are accepted as suitable by the United Nations.

UNODC promotes and monitors the use of existing standards and norms. This is done through advisory services and technical assistance, training seminars and expert group meetings. UNODC has also developed a number of tools and handbooks to assist states in implementing UN standards and norms.

Treatment of prisoners

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners set out what is generally accepted as being good principle and practice in the treatment of prisoners and the management of institutions. Among other measures, it provides for the following:

Rules for general application

Separation of inmates according to categories

There shall be separation between juveniles and adults, civil and criminal offenders, untried and convicted prisoners. As far as possible, men and women shall be detained in separate institutions.


Cells for individuals shall not be used to accommodate more than one person overnight. Communal cells shall only house prisoners who have been carefully selected to share them. All facilities shall meet the requirements regarding health, heating, ventilation, floor space, sanitary facilities and lighting.

Education and recreation

Further education shall be provided to all prisoners. Schooling of illiterates and young prisoners shall be compulsory. As far as possible, the schooling shall be in accordance with the country's educational system so that prisoners can continue their studies without difficulty after being released. Additionally, recreational and cultural activities like sports, music and other hobbies shall be available to all prisoners.

Medical services

At least one qualified medical officer who also has some knowledge of psychiatry shall be available in each institution. Sick prisoners who need special treatment shall be transferred to a civil hospital. In women's institutions there shall be special provision for pre- and post-natal treatment.

Rules applicable to prisoners under sentence

General provisions

The purpose and justification of a sentence of imprisonment or a similar measure is ultimately to protect society against crime. This end can only be achieved if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure that upon the offender's return to society he/she is willing and able to lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life. To this end, the institution shall utilize appropriate and available remedial, educational, moral and spiritual forms of assistance.

Classification and individualization

Prisoners shall be divided into classes in order to facilitate their treatment with a view to their social rehabilitation. Those who may be a bad influence on others shall be separated from the general population.


Prisoners' social and criminal history, personal temperament, and physical and mental capacities shall be taken into account. The treatment shall encourage their self-respect and develop their sense of responsibility.


Prisoners under sentence shall be required to work, but this work must not cause distress. The daily and weekly working hours shall be set according to local rules, leave one rest day a week and sufficient time for education and other activities. Work is to be remunerated equitably and prisoners shall have the right to spend part of their earnings on approved articles and to send money home. Vocational training shall be provided for prisoners able to profit from it and especially for young prisoners.

Alternatives to imprisonment

International instruments on crime prevention and criminal justice also call for examining alternatives to incarceration. If they are planned and used appropriately, these non-custodial measures reduce human rights violations, save resources and are generally more effective than imprisonment in reducing recidivism. Fines, community service, probation, house arrest and other non-custodial measures enable the authorities to adjust penal sanctions to the needs of the individual offender in a manner proportionate to the offence committed.

Another option is to resort to restorative justice programmes under which the victim, offender and other people in the community help to find negotiated solutions. The process emphasizes relationship building and reconciliation. The outcome may include reparation, restitution and community services.

To learn more about UN standards and norms, as well as to download UNODC tools and handbooks, please visit www.unodc.org/criminal_justice.html