Civil Liberties

U.S. Blocks Expanded Prisoner Rights at U.N. Meeting

Solitary confinement was a particular stumbling block


The U.N. meeting in Buenos Aires on uniform rules for the treatment of prisoners, which concluded last week, was a significant step toward progressive reform, as the resulting Draft Report makes clear. Unfortunately, due in large part to positions taken by the U.S. delegation, an opportunity to make even greater progress was lost.

This is the first revision of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) since they were promulgated in 1955.  At some points during the U.N. Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting, the U.S. delegation made positive proposals. At other times it seemed to fear too much justice.

It opposed a proposal that would have allowed a prisoner facing disciplinary charges to be represented by a lawyer, even at his or her own expense. It pushed, unsuccessfully, for removal of a reference to health care being provided to prisoners free of charge – presumably because many U.S. prisons and jails charge prisoners for medical care. (The Brazilian delegation objected to the deletion, and the language remained in the Draft Report.)