PRISONERS IN A SITUATION OF VULNERABILITY
Prisoners in a situation of vulnerability are those who, due to their
characteristics, real or attributed, social attitudes and the condi-

What are the State obligations concerning prisoners in a situation of
vulnerability?
States and therefore its agents have a general duty to protect all detainees, including those in situations of
vulnerability. This general duty includes three types of obligations:

tions of their detention, are at a higher risk than ordinary prisoners
of having their basic human rights violated.
Examples:
Women - vulnerable due to prevailing gender stereotypes and isolation and gender-based violence
Children - vulnerable because of their lack of understanding of the
law, prison order and venues to complain, deprivation of family
support and physical weakness
Prisoners with disabilities – vulnerable because of the lack of accom-

DUTY TO RESPECT

DUTY TO PREVENT

DUTY TO ACCOMMODATE

Prison staff must not violate the
rights of prisoners in a situation
of vulnerability. In particular
they should be careful not to
discriminate on the specific
ground, which generates the
vulnerability, such as a prisoner’s disability or gender.

modation of the physical environment, stigma, lack of appropriate
medical treatment and rehabilitation

The State must adjust the conditions of detention to address
and reduce the specific vulnerability of the particular prisoner
or group, e.g. by providing an
appropriate physical environment, sanitary and other materials, education for those of
compulsory school age, interpreters etc.

The authorities have to identify
vulnerability, anticipate possible risks, take precautions
against them and organize the
detention facilities with the aim
to protect individuals and
groups in a situation of vulnerability from any assault on their
human rights, regardless of the
perpetrator.

Foreign prisoners – vulnerable due to their social isolation, differences in language, culture, customs and religion, lack of family ties and

National Preventive Mechanisms, established under the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against

contacts with the outside world

Torture (OPCAT), are mandated to visit places of detention to prevent torture and ill-treatment and

Ethnic minority and indigenous prisoners – vulnerable because of their

examine factors that contribute to its occurrence. As vulnerability is associated with a higher risk of any

social status, prejudices and stereotypes they face in society

type of human rights violation, NPMs should give priority to identifying groups and individuals in a
situation of vulnerability in detention and to monitoring and reporting on their human rights situation.

What do international standards say?
What are the international standards relating to prisoners in a
situation of vulnerability?

What should prison staff and administrations consider?
1.

in your jurisdiction and what makes them vulnerable?

Standards derive from the major international human rights treaties, customary international law (e.g. on
protection against torture). At the EU level, Directive (EU) 2016/800 provides for legally binding standards for
treatment of children in detention. In addition, different UN, Council of Europe and EU bodies have adopted soft
law documents, which are either exclusively dedicated to or contain specific provisions for the protection of prisoners in a situation of vulnerability. There are three types of soft law standards:

2.

1.

3.

Thematic soft law documents

Provisions in general soft law docu-

National standards on groups of

dedicated exclusively to specific

ments concerning groups in a situation

prisoners that are recognized as

groups

of vulnerability, e.g. foreign prisoners,

vulnerable based on contextual

prisoners

criteria in the specific state

with

disabilities,

ethnic

minority and indigenous prisoners
Examples:

Examples:

Women: UN Bangkok Rules

UN
Nelson Mandela Rules, A/RES/70/175
https://undocs.org/A/RES/70/175

https://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/pdf/res45_113.pdf
Children:
UN “Havana Rules”,
https://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/pdf/res45_113.pdf

CoE,

https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Bangkok_Rules_ENG_22032015.pdf
https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Bangkok_Rules_ENG_22032015.pdf

UN “Beijing Rules”,
CoE Rec CM/Rec(2008)11

https://www.euromed-justice.eu/en/system/files/20090428164903_CouncilofEurope.RecommendationCM200811ontheEuropeanRulesforjuvenileoffenderssubjecttosanctionsormeasures.doc.pdf
https://www.euromed-justice.eu/en/system/files/20090428164903_CouncilofEurope.RecommendationCM200811ontheEuropeanRulesforjuvenileoffenderssubjecttosanctionsormeasures.doc.pdf

Foreign

prisoners:

Prison

Rules,

Rec(2006)2-rev

https://www.ohchr.org/documents/professionalinterest/beijingrules.pdf
https://www.ohchr.org/documents/professionalinterest/beijingrules.pdf

CoE Rec

https://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/41781569/42171329/CMRec+%282012%29+12+concerning+foreign+prisoners.pdf/a13a6dc6-facd-4aaa-9cc6-3bf875ac8b0f
https://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/41781569/42171329/CMRec+%282012%29+12+concerning+foreign+prisoners.pdf/a13a6dc6-facd-4aaa-9cc6-3bf875ac8b0f
https://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/41781569/42171329/CMRec+%282012%29+12+concerning+foreign+prisoners.pdf/a13a6dc6-facd-4aaa-9cc6-3bf875ac8b0f
https://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/41781569/42171329/CMRec+%282012%29+12+concerning+foreign+prisoners.pdf/a13a6dc6-facd-4aaa-9cc6-3bf875ac8b0f
https://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/41781569/42171329/CMRec+%282012%29+12+concerning+foreign+prisoners.pdf/a13a6dc6-facd-4aaa-9cc6-3bf875ac8b0f

CM/Rec(2012)12

LGBTI: SPT, 9th annual report

https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/059/73/PDF/G1605973.pdf?OpenElement
https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/059/73/PDF/G1605973.pdf?OpenElement
https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/059/73/PDF/G1605973.pdf?OpenElement

2.

How do we identify prisoners and groups in a situation of
vulnerability?

3.

What measures do we need to adopt to respect and prevent
human rights violations of prisoners in a situation of
vulnerability?

4.

What measures do we need to adopt to accommodate the
specific needs of prisoners and groups in a situation of

https://bit.ly/3co8M7i
Imprisonment,
2nd ed., New York, 2014
https://bit.ly/3co8M7i
-CHRHR,
Protecting Children Against
https://bit.ly/3fpANgC
Torture
in Detention: Global Solutions
https://bit.ly/3fpANgC
for
a Global Problem, May 2017
https://bit.ly/3fpANgC
-UNDOC,
Handbook on prisoners with
https://bit.ly/3w0nR6V
special needs, UN Office on Drugs and
https://bit.ly/3w0nR6V

-UNODC, Handbook on Women and

Crime, Vienna, 2009.

https://bit.ly/39gFRjy
https://bit.ly/39gFRjy

-APT, Towards the Effective Protection

vulnerability?

5.

Additional resources

of LGBTI Persons Deprived of Liberty: A

What would you improve for prisoners in a situation of

Monitoring

vulnerability if you were in charge?
Examples:

https://bit.ly/3clLCyF
European

Which are (groups of) prisoners in a situation of vulnerability

https://bit.ly/3tPiEgo
European Parliament, Prison systems
and conditions, Res of 5 October 2017

“Permanently unemployed prisonhttps://bit.ly/39b2So6
ers" as defined by the Czech law,
https://bit.ly/39b2So6
recognized as vulnerable by the
https://bit.ly/39b2So6
Czech Public Defender of Rights
https://bit.ly/39b2So6

To find out more about complaints consult our Handbook:
https://bit.ly/2Q5Ngfe
“Prisoners
in a Situation
of Vulnerability”
https://bit.ly/2Q5Ngfe
https://bit.ly/2Q5Ngfe

For further information on other thematic issues, please refer to our publications on:
https://bit.ly/32lZO4E
Solitary
confinement, https://bit.ly/3dpxbdr
Prison violence, Complaint
procedures
https://bit.ly/2Qycv9R

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