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The Nelson Mandela Rules: A Fitting Tribute

"It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." Nelson Mandela

Until 17 December, 2015, the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners (SMR) were those which had been adopted in 1955. The process of bringing them up to date took five years and owes much to the steadfast work of Quakers and Penal Reform International. In a fitting tribute, when the new rules were ratified by the UN they became known formally as the Nelson Mandela Rules.

Importantly these revised rules established for the first time prison safety as a duty of States. Specific revisions to the old rules spanned respect for dignity; healthcare; discipline (including solitary confinement); investigation of deaths and evidence of torture; needs of vulnerable groups; legal representation; complaints and inspections; replacing outdated terminology; and training of prison staff.

Today on Nelson Mandela International Day, there are over ten million people in prison worldwide. Some will have lost their liberty as a measured and proportionate punishment for the serious crimes they have committed. Many will have been imprisoned for years awaiting trial. Others are being held in prison for want of adequate mental health or social care services. Some are forgotten behind bars with papers long lost and no lawyers or family to advocate for their release. And, for those in England and Wales who pride themselves on the fairness of our justice system, a reminder that there are over 4,000 people held beyond tariff in our jails still serving the Kafkaesque, abolished since 2012, sentence of indeterminate imprisonment for public protection (IPP).

Today is a testimony to the life of a man who, after 27 years behind bars, said: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." And later: "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

The task now for all those who care about fundamental rights and freedoms is to build on Nelson Mandela's legacy, to challenge injustice, gather facts and figures and personal accounts that together will expose the massive social and economic costs of overuse of incarceration and profile States which are successfully managing down excessively high prison numbers in favour of justice reinvestment and effective alternatives to custody.

Juliet Lyon is outgoing director of the Prison Reform Trust, former secretary general of Penal Reform International and a visiting professor at Birkbeck, University of London

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