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The basic rights of prisoners

Prisoners retain certain basic rights, which survive despite imprisonment. The rights of access to the courts and of respect for one’s bodily integrity - that is, not to be assaulted - are such fundamental rights. Others may be recognised as the law develops. Prisoners lose only those civil rights that are taken away either expressly by an Act of Parliament or by necessary implication. For example, one right taken away by statute is that prisoners detained following conviction do not have a right to vote, although this is under consideration following criticism by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The test in every case is whether the right is fundamental and whether there is anything in the Prison Act 1952, the Prison Rules 1999 or elsewhere which authorises the prison authorities to limit such a right.

Broadly speaking, the State is allowed to place limits on prisoners' rights if it is considered necessary for the prevention of crime, for prison security or to protect the safety of the prisoner or others. Any limitations placed upon such rights must be proportionate to the aim that the authorities are seeking to achieve. There are a large number of cases that have been heard by the ECtHR which help clarify the extent to which limitations can be imposed.

National Offender Management Service

Until 2007, the Prison Service and Probation Service came under the control of the Home Office. In July 2007, the Home Office was split up and responsibility for Prisons and Probation now rests with the Ministry of Justice. An agency called the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is responsible for all offenders serving their sentences, whether in prison, the community or both, and its objectives are to punish offenders and reduce re-offending. It also contains departments that deal directly with decisions to release prisoners and decisions to recall them to custody. To a large extent, these changes in the terms of administration do not affect prisoners’ daily lives. Matters falling within the remit of prison governors remain largely unchanged and other departments act on delegated authority from the Secretary of State for Justice who retains ultimate responsibility.

Prison Rules

In law, the Prison Rules have legal force only in so far as the Prison Act 1952 gives authority for the Rule. Legal challenges to the Rules have been successful in cases where the courts have held that the Prison Act 1952 does not authorise the scope of a particular Rule. The Prison Rules provide a structure and framework for the regulation of prison life. Unlike in other areas, such as housing, where it is possible to take court proceedings for breach of a statutory duty, a breach of the Rules by the prison authorities does not confer the right to sue in the courts for damages.

More detailed instructions are given in Prison Service Orders and Instructions (which are available on the Prison Service’s website). These are internal directives issued to prison governors and prison officers and are designed to ensure uniformity in the treatment of prisoners throughout the prison estate. They do not have any direct legal authority and can be challenged if they breach the scope of the Prison Act or Prison Rules or if they are simply irrational. They are, however, a vital source of information about prisoners’ rights and entitlements and can provide important evidence as to the proper practice that should be adopted by the prison authorities.


On reception into prison, prisoners will be searched and may be photographed. The prison authorities will keep any property that is not allowed to be kept in a prisoner’s possession while they are in prison. A list will be made on arrival of all property held by a prisoner and prisoners must be given the opportunity to check it is correct before signing it. All cash must be paid into an account, which is under the governor's control. All prisoners should be issued on arrival with a copy of the Prisoners' Information Handbook. A copy of the Prison Rules must be made available to any prisoner who requests it.
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