Human dignity and prisoners’ rights – A European Perspective

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Protecting the dignity and human rights of prisoners poses difficult challenges. Degradation is a hallmark of all punishment and especially of imprisonment. Prisons as total institutions entail distinctive power relations between staff and inmates that increase risks of violations of prisoners’ dignity. Protection of human dignity is complicated by difficulties in defining the term: the sense of personal dignity experienced subjectively by the individual may be at odds with social dignity recognized by others. Respect or denial of human dignity is strongly felt by prisoners; the struggle for recognition is arduous and never-ending. This is illustrated by the relative successes of the prisoners’ rights movement in American courts between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, followed for two decades by a decline in dignity-based judicial decisions on prisoners’ rights and, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011), by a timid hope for a “second coming of dignity.” Expansions in protection of prisoners’ dignity in Europe came later, in the 1980s, increased significantly through the 2010s, and more recently face new challenges from recalcitrant governments and more cautious judges.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-351
Number of pages51
JournalCrime and Justice
Issue number1
Early online date23 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Human dignity
  • Prisoners' rights
  • Europe


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