The Rights of Prisoners

Prisoner rights, rules and regulations while they are in prison are outlined in Prison Service Instructions (PSIs) which cover a wide range of issues – from pastoral care of prisoners to cells and vehicle searches, and from eye testing to adult social care.

The Prison Reform Trust has written a number of guides and information booklets for prisoners. These include Information for disabled prisoners, Human Rights Booklet for Prisoners and an Information sheet for people maintaining innocence in prison (amongst many others). These should be freely available from the prison.

What civil liberties does a prisoner have?

When incarcerated, prisoners in the UK no longer have the same civil liberties as the rest of the population. For instance, they do not have the right to vote. However, they still have protection of the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.

But a prisoner’s human rights are compromised by the fact that they are in prison. For instance, they cannot access computers, mobile phones or the internet; they can be locked in their cell; and they can be made to work.

What anti-discrimination rights does a prisoner have?

It is unlawful discrimination for a prisoner to be treated unfairly due to their race, sex, disability, sexuality, religious beliefs, and other ‘protected characteristics’. If a prisoner believes they have been discriminated against while in prison, they may be able to claim compensation under the Equality Act 2010 and or the Human Rights Act 1998.

What rights to health care does a prisoner enjoy?

Prisoners have the same rights as everyone else to full NHS care in prison, including mental health services. However, treatment must be approved by the prison doctor or a member of the prison healthcare team.

Outside specialists can be consulted when necessary. If required, the prisoner can be moved to a prison with different medical facilities, or to a local NHS hospital, where the prisoner will remain under the control of the Prison Service.

What rights does a prisoner have over their personal property?

This depends on the individual prison’s policy, but generally speaking, inmates are allowed to keep items in their cell that can be kept in no more than two boxes (approximately six cubit feet). It also depends on the regime level the inmate is subject to. All items will be logged on the prisoner’s property card.

If inmates have more than the amount of property that can be kept in two boxes, the prison may store some items unless they are in prison on remand. Similarly, if a prisoner arrives at prison with their own money, they can have it placed in a private cash account.

Each prison has its own rules on when and what property can be brought into the prison for an inmate by a visitor.

Can a prisoner study and work in prison?

Prisoners have the opportunity to undertake courses in basic skills, such as computing, basic maths, woodwork and so on. Most will lead to a recognised qualification, such asa GCSE or NVQ, which can be invaluable when a prisoner completes their sentence and is seeking employment.

Prisoners can also work in prison, such as working in the kitchen or laundry room, and be paid for that work. Lower risk prisoners may be allowed to work in the community.

What are the rules on letter writing?

Prison policies vary from prison to prison, however, officially there is no set limit to the amount of mail a prisoner can send or receive. Inmates can, on the whole, write to whoever they wish (subject to certain guidelines and restrictions).

The Prison Governor’s permission is needed, for example, when an inmate wishes to publicly advertise for a pen friend, write to their victim (or the victim’s family), or to write to a prisoner in a different prison. In addition, incoming and outgoing mail are generally monitored before delivery to ensure content is appropriate (with the exception of confidential legal information sent to or from the prisoner’s lawyers).

What visiting rights does a prisoner have?

Prisoners (unless on remand) are allocated visiting orders (VOs) which they must send to their visitors beforehand. When the visitor goes to the prison, they must produce their VO and ID to gain entry.

Up to three people can visit one inmate at a time. Most prisons allow at least two one-hour visits every four weeks, though civil prisoners (people in prison due to civil violation, not criminal activity) can have as many visits as they like. If the visitor lives a long distance away from the prison, there is flexibility around visiting rules, for instance, the visitor may be allowed longer visits less often.

Inmates are allowed an unlimited number of visits from their lawyers at reasonable times. However, more stringent rules apply for visitors for category A prisons.

How should a prison make a complaint?

When an inmate wishes to make a complaint, they should first inform a prison officer (or make it in writing). Complaints can be escalated through a senior police officer or the Governor or, if necessary, to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

What rights does a prisoner have to make phone calls?

On arriving to prison from court, the prison may allow an initial call home.

A PIN phone system is used to make telephone calls inside prison. Calls may only be made on the prison phones in the corridor or on a wing. The prisoner will need to be authorised to make the call to the particular number. Some numbers, such as premium rates lines, may be barred by the prison. Call length may be limited and all calls are monitored (unless they are confidential, for example, if the call is to or from lawyers or the Samaritans).

In category A prisons, calls are monitored more strictly.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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