In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Treatment of Prisoners

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Special Issues
  • Journals
  • Historical Background
  • Defining Torture and Other Ill-Treatment
  • Absolute Prohibition
  • Deprivations of Prisoners’ Lives
  • Enforced Disappearance
  • The Principle of Non-Refoulement and “Extraordinary Rendition”
  • Fundamental Safeguards
  • The Right to a Remedy and Reparation
  • Universal Jurisdiction
  • Prevention
  • Rights to Family Life, Privacy, and Religion
  • Other Aspects (Voting, Labor, and Health)

International Relations Treatment of Prisoners
Lorna McGregor, Nigel Rodley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0065


All legal systems and societies in the world permit the detention of persons suspected or convicted of a crime. The act of placing one person in the custody and under the control of another can result in grave threats to the human dignity of the detainee, such as torture, rape, death, and enforced disappearance. In recognition of these problems, international law not only governs when and for how long a person can be lawfully detained, but also provides for a range of prohibited treatment and guarantees designed to protect persons deprived of their liberty from abuse. The term “the treatment of prisoners under international law” is used to capture this range of obligations required of states by international law. The jurisprudence on the treatment of prisoners is vast, particularly by the regional human rights commissions and courts and the treaty bodies of the United Nations. With the exception of The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law by Sir Nigel Rodley, now with Matt Pollard in its third edition, the literature in this area of law tends to focus on particular types of ill-treatment, most notably torture, rather than dealing with all aspects of the treatment of prisoners in equal measure. The definition of torture (but not other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment) and the absolute nature of the prohibition continue to receive significant scholarly attention. Similarly, procedural barriers to access to justice, such as amnesties and immunities, and universal jurisdiction as a basis on which to bring claims of torture before a court outside of the state in which it is alleged to have been committed represent areas of scholarship that continue to generate a number of articles and books.

General Overviews

A number of texts deal with specific aspects of the treatment of prisoners. These works are detailed in this entry under the particular subject heading. Rodley and Pollard 2009 is one of the leading comprehensive texts on the treatment of prisoners under international law while Evans and Morgan 1998, Murdoch 2006, and van Zyl Smit and Snacken 2009 provide a detailed examination of the issue within Europe.

  • Evans, Malcolm, and Rod Morgan. Preventing Torture: A Study of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    A groundbreaking empirical study on the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), including chapters on the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, CPT findings of ill-treatment, conditions of detention, and procedural safeguards.

  • Murdoch, Jim. The Treatment of Prisoners: European Standards. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe, 2006.

    Tracks the evolution of the protection of persons deprived of their liberty from ill-treatment in Europe, focusing in particular on the standards and systems developed by the Council of Europe.

  • Rodley, Nigel, and Matt Pollard. The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Now in its third edition, which Sir Nigel Rodley updated with Matt Pollard (senior legal adviser at Amnesty International), this work covers all aspects of the treatment of prisoners under international law.

  • van Zyl Smit, Dirk, and Sonja Snacken. Principles of European Prison Law and Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Detailed treatment of the justification and criminology theories on detention and its purposes as well as examination of a range of issues, including legal protection, dealing with the treatment of prisoners within Europe.

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