The United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice approved the Mandela Rules last week.  The Mandela Rules are named in honor of the late South African President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years by the country's apartheid regime. They are the revised United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. These rules are the leading international body of principles on the treatment of prisoners, but they were drafted in 1955 and were badly in need of updating.

According to  David Fathi,  who attended the commission hearing representing the ACLU's National Prison Project, "The revisions provide that solitary confinement 'shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review.' Indefinite solitary confinement and prolonged solitary confinement — defined as more than 15 consecutive days — are now prohibited. Solitary confinement will also be prohibited in the case of persons with mental or physical disabilities when their condition would be exacerbated.

The Mandela Rules include other important revisions addressing the treatment of women and persons with disabilities.  The provisions regarding health care are strengthened, and significant safeguards on the use of restraints have been added.

Finally, the resolution approving the Mandela Rules calls for July 18 – the global icon's birthday – to be known as Mandela Prisoner Rights Day, which will promote humane conditions of confinement and raise awareness of prisoners as a continuing part of society."  The Mandela Rules still need to be approved by the U.N. General Assembly this fall, although approval is overwhelmingly likely. Unlike a treaty, the rules aren't binding, although they represent a powerful global consensus on minimum standards.  The real work — ensuring that the Mandela Rules make a difference in the lives of the millions of prisoners throughout the world — begins now. But the unanimous adoption of the Mandela Rules in Vienna last week was an indispensable first step, and a positive development for prisoners' rights everywhere."

The ACLU of Montana’s work on jails and prisons focuses on humane and sanitary living conditions, equal protection for female prisoners, reducing the use of solitary confinement, provision of constitutionally required medical care, including mental health care, and protection of First Amendment rights and religious liberties while incarcerated

One case, Katka v. Montana, was filed in December 2009 on behalf of a 17-year-old who had been incarcerated in the maximum security section of the Montana State Prison since the age of 16, much of that time in solitary confinement. Raistlen Katka suffered from mental illness and tried to commit suicide four times at the prison, with a nearly successful attempt in June 2010. In the summer of 2010 we were successful in getting Raistlen transferred to the Montana State Hospital. He has since been released, and in spring 2012, the ACLU reached a settlement with Montana State Prison limiting the use of solitary confinement on juvenile and prisoners with mental illness.

At Montana Women’s Prison prisoners were forced to participate in a degrading “therapeutic living community” not required of male prisoners at the Montana State Prison. Those women who refused were placed in solitary confinement. Female prisoners were not able to participate in the boot camp program (which offers training and the possibility of sentence reduction) available to men. Our settlement in the case Fish v. Acton ended the degrading Right Living Community and gave women the opportunity to attend boot camp.

In another case, Diaz-Wassmer v. Ferriter, the ACLU challenged Montana State Prison’s “English-only” policy for prisoners’ written communications. The settlement now allows prisoners to communicate with friends and family in their native tongues.

We remain committed to our work in the Montana prison system.

Our report Locked in the Past: Montana's Jails in Crisis  is available for more information about conditions in Montana's detention facilities.