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SPA’s Viano Helps ‘Give Teeth’ to Rules Regulating Prisoner Treatment

Emilio Viano, professor of justice, law, and society

Emilio Viano’s task was daunting but important.

A member of the International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation, Viano was among a group charged with updating rules that govern the treatment of prisoners around the world—rules that have remained unchanged for more than 50 years.

The United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were “obviously in need of updating to reflect a changed world since 1957,” said Viano, a professor of justice, law, and society in the School of Public Affairs. “The growing awareness of human rights in general and specifically as they apply to minorities, indigenous populations, women, and other groups often mistreated in prisons” guided the committee’s work, he said.

The committee’s formation in 2007 was prompted by prisoner mistreatment and accusations of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay and exploding prison populations around the world—especially in the United States.

“The U.S. has the largest number of people in custody on any given day of any democratic nation,” Viano noted. “As a society, we punish many more crimes than we did 50 years ago; we’re turning to criminal law to cure social ills [rather than] pursuing alternatives to incarceration.”

Composed of legal practitioners and scholars from across South America, the committee sought to address a variety of issues, including: the rise of prison privatization in the United States; the displacement of urban offenders to rural prisons; inadequate funding and over-crowding; and a changing prison population that now includes more women, juveniles, and elderly inmates.

“There is an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ mentality when it comes to prisoners,” Viano said. “There is no lobby for them, no one’s advocating for them except a few, underfunded NGOs. But the fact is, we have a social responsibility to ensure that even those deprived of their freedom are treated respectfully and with dignity.”

In April, the revised rules were endorsed by the United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Brazil. The rules, which have been published in four languages, touch on every aspect of prison life, from exercise and education to hygiene and nutrition. The document emphasizes human rights, calling for educational opportunities for prisoners and prison staff, alike, and improved medical and mental health care. The rules also touch on the special needs of women, gay and transgender inmates, and juveniles, who are more prone to victimization and isolation in prison.

And while pen’s been put to paper, the committee’s work is far from finished. The group is now launching a global campaign to promote the revised rules and educate policy makers about prisoners’ rights. The committee also plans to write a treaty on standards of care and treatment for approval by the United Nations General Assembly in order to “give the rules some teeth.”

“If we can get a treaty before the general assembly in October, that would be an absolute triumph,” Viano said. “We need the ability to enforce the rules, beyond shaming and beyond persuasion.

“Many of us think that we have won when Congress passes a law, but that’s only the beginning. Next comes implementation and enforcement. Our work is just beginning.”