The right to religion in prisons
Prisons are often characterised by the co-existence of detainees belonging to diverse religions, as well as detainees who do not adhere to any religion. Under international human rights law, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. This applies equally to detainees and means that they have the right to choose and change their religion, as well as the opportunity to manifest their religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching in detention. Religious indoctrination and forcible religious conversion of detainees are contrary to the freedom of religion in prisons.
All recognised religions
The right to religion in prison applies to all recognised religions and should not be restricted to the main religions in the country. It should not be the role of prison authorities to decide what is a religion and what is not. This will normally be decided by the competent state authorities and national courts.
The extent to which the right to religion is respected in prisons often reflects the level of religious freedom in society at large. In countries with a state religion where religious freedom is severely restricted, the freedom of religion in prisons is less likely to be ensured in practice.
Prison staff should not discriminate against persons because of their religious beliefs and all religions should be treated equally. In no circumstances should staff make derogatory comments about a person’s religious beliefs or practices. Prison staff should respect for detainees’ religious beliefs, objects and practices. Prison chaplains (religious representatives) can share aspects and foster an understanding of their religion among both detainees and staff. There should be no favouritism: detainees adhering to certain religion(s) should not receive advantages over others.
Right to have no religion
Detainees also have the right not to adhere to any religion. Detainees should not be required to practice a religion or belief, to attend religious services or meetings, to take part in religious practices or to accept a visit from a representative of any religion. Detainees who do not have a religion should not suffer any disadvantage because of this.
Restrictions on the right to religion
The only permissible restrictions on the right to religion are for reasons of security and good order (including safety and the requirements of communal living). It is not uncommon that these are cited as reasons to restrict the observance of religious requirements (for example prohibiting certain haircuts required by a religion because dangerous objects can be hidden in them). However, for restrictions to be justified there should be a clear link between the restriction and the legitimate correctional interest and it should be applied equally to all religions. It is also relevant to consider whether there are other ways for detainees to exercise their rights and solutions that can accommodate both interests. There should be no restrictions on the freedom of religion for disciplinary purposes (either restricting the right to exercise ones religion or requiring a detainees’ participation in religion activities).
Standards provide that one or more chaplains (representatives of a religion) should be appointed if the number of detainees of the same religion in the prison is sufficient. The number of approved chaplains should be proportionate to the number of detainees claiming to practice that religion. However, this obligation only extends to chaplains who agree to abide by public order rules of prison and if the religion puts forward qualified representatives. Chaplains of recognised religions should have equal status – e.g. access to the same facilities.
Any detainee requesting should be entitled to receive visits in private from a qualified religious representative of any religion (also religions for which there is no appointed prison chaplain). This includes if the detainee is immobile. Religious representatives should thus be authorised to move around freely within areas where persons held in custody are accommodated, to hold personal discussions with these persons, and have material resources for this purpose at their disposal. In some contexts, the privacy of communication and correspondence between detainees and religious representatives is protected. Detainees who do not wish to be visited by a chaplain should not be obliged to receive such a visit.
Detainees should be able to gather as a group for collective prayer, religious meetings and festive occasions linked to the religious calendar. Prison chaplains should be able to hold regular religious services. Premises designed for collective prayers or services should be provided - they should be large enough and fitted out for their intended purpose. They should be available for different religions, according to a timetable to suit the wishes of chaplains and accepted by the director. These facilities should ideally be used exclusively for holding services and religious meetings – where this is not possible, a minimum of disturbance should be assured. Premises should also be available to accommodate celebrations of recognised religious festivals. Authorities should be informed of a timetable and provide necessary facilities.
List of names and religious denomination
To ensure the possibility for detainees to participate in religious activities, a list of detainees’ names with their religious affiliation should be drawn up and maintained by the prison authorities, subject to data protection/confidentiality. This should be updated based on information from chaplains and events (e.g. transfers) to avoid delays in participation. Detainees have the right to change their religion and have no religion. Authorities should not use the fact that a person is registered on the list as grounds for declining the request to attend an event of another religious organisation.
Religious objects and materials
Detainees should be allowed to keep in their possession religious books; religious signs and symbols; and religious objects. Respect should be shown for all religious objects. Staff may need to be trained to recognise these. In some prisons, there are problems of disappearance of, or damage to, religious objects, or staff behaviour that demonstrates contempt towards them.
Clothing and hygiene
Detainees should have the possibility of observing the requirements of their religion. This includes praying, reading religious texts, wearing specific clothing, grooming and washing as often as their religion requires. This may mean providing facilities for detainees to pray or carry out washing practices (for example using a wash basin in the cell).
Food and dietary requirements
Religions may impose rules on followers on what and when they can eat and drink. Prisons should be organised in a way that they can provide menus that meet the special dietary requirements. The option of fasting should be available (taking into account health considerations and the smooth running of institution). An example of a positive practice is providing warm food at the times when fasting detainees are able to eat.
A supply of meats and other food stuffs prepared according to rites approved by religious authorities should be sought and used as far as possible. Contracts can also be concluded with outside providers and/or staff preparing and serving food can be trained on specific requirements of food preparation. At the same time, persons who do not observe a religion should not be subject to dietary restrictions based on religious considerations.
The issue of food is of fundamental importance to people deprived of their liberty. If food does not meet requirements, there is a risk of: people not eating enough or artificially changing eating habits (people eating vegetarian when they have no desire to refrain from eating meat). If arrangements cannot immediately be made to offer menus compatible with religious requirements, then intermediate measures should be taken, including: prison chaplains should be authorised to bring quantities of food stuffs into the prison; and a wider range of other products should be offered in canteens.
Minority religions and indigenous forms of worship
The right to religion in prison applies equally to all recognised religions and not only the mainstream religions in a country. In practice, detainees subscribing to minority religions (for example, certain persons belonging to minority groups, foreign nationals or indigenous persons) may face barriers exercising this right, due to discrimination and/or a lack of awareness. Detainees from minority religions may also be vulnerable to religious indoctrination or forced conversions, through recognised programmes or by other detainees (e.g. belonging to better represented religions in the prison). Particular attention should thus be paid by the authorities to religious freedom for minority religions, including indigenous forms of worship.
Women detainees have the same right to choose, change and practice their religion as male detainees. International standards require prison authorities to recognise that women detainees from different religious and cultural backgrounds can have distinctive needs and may face multiple forms of discrimination in their access to gender and culture relevant programmes and services. In practice, women may have less access to religious activities and places of workshop, due to a lack of available facilities and priority given to the male detainee population.
International standards specify that “Every juvenile should be allowed to satisfy the needs of his or her religious and spiritual life”. This means that children and young people detained in prison should have the same opportunities to choose, change and exercise their religion as adults. In particular they should be able to:
attend the services or meetings provided in the detention facility;
conduct their own services;
have in their possession of the necessary books or items of religious observance and instruction of his or her denomination; and
receive visits from a qualified representative of any religion.
A religious representative should be approved or appointed if there are a sufficient number of detainees adhering to a certain religion in a juvenile detention facility.
Young detainees may be particularly susceptible to religious indoctrination and prison authorities should refrain from and ensure they are protected from this. Juveniles should have the right not to adhere to a religion, not to participate in religious services and freely to decline religious education.
Persons with mental and physical disabilities should enjoy the same right to freedom of religion as other detainees in prisons. Prison authorities should make reasonable accommodation to ensure that detainees with physical disabilities have access to religious activities and places of worship. Persons with mental disabilities may be more susceptible to religious indoctrination in the prison setting. Prison authorities should ensure that this does not take place.
Legal standards (10) Print
International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and their families
Migrant workers and members of their families who are subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment in accordance with the law in force in the State of employment or in the State of transit shall enjoy the same rights as nationals of those States who are in the same situation.
United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules)
The present rules shall be applied impartially. There shall be no discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status. The religious beliefs and moral precepts of prisoners shall be respected.
1. The purposes of a sentence of imprisonment or similar measures deprivative of a person’s liberty are primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.
2. To this end, prison administrations and other competent authorities should offer education, vocational training and work, as well as other forms of assistance that are appropriate and available, including those of a remedial, moral, spiritual, social and health- and sports-based nature. All such programmes, activities and services should be delivered in line with the individual treatment needs of prisoners.
1. If the prison contains a sufficient number of prisoners of the same religion, a qualified representative of that religion shall be appointed or approved. If the number of prisoners justifies it and conditions permit, the arrangement should be on a full-time basis.
2. A qualified representative appointed or approved under paragraph 1 of this rule shall be allowed to hold regular services and to pay pastoral visits in private to prisoners of his or her religion at proper times.
3. Access to a qualified representative of any religion shall not be refused to any prisoner. On the other hand, if any prisoner should object to a visit of any religious representative, his or her attitude shall be fully respected.
So far as practicable, every prisoner shall be allowed to satisfy the needs of his or her religious life by attending the services provided in the prison and having in his or her possession the books of religious observance and instruction of his or her denomination.
The treatment of persons sentenced to imprisonment or a similar measure shall have as its purpose, so far as the length of the sentence permits, to establish in them the will to lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives after their release and to fit them to do so. The treatment shall be such as will encourage their self-respect and develop their sense of responsibility.
To these ends, all appropriate means shall be used, including religious care in the countries where this is possible, education, vocational guidance and training, social casework, employment counselling, physical development and strengthening of moral character, in accordance with the individual needs of each prisoner, taking account of his or her social and criminal history, physical and mental capacities and aptitudes, personal temperament, the length of his or her sentence and prospects after release.
Provision shall be made for the further education of all prisoners capable of profiting thereby, including religious instruction in the countries where this is possible. The education of illiterate prisoners and of young prisoners shall be compulsory and special attention shall be paid to it by the prison administration.
Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners
It is, however, desirable to respect the religious beliefs and cultural precepts of the group to which prisoners belong, whenever local conditions so require.
UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules)
Prison authorities shall recognize that women prisoners from different religious and cultural backgrounds have distinctive needs and may face multiple forms of discrimination in their access to gender- and culture-relevant programmes and services. Accordingly, prison authorities shall provide comprehensive programmes and services that address these needs, in consultation with women prisoners themselves and the relevant groups.
United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty
Every juvenile should be allowed to satisfy the needs of his or her religious and spiritual life, in particular by attending the services or meetings provided in the detention facility or by conducting his or her own services and having possession of the necessary books or items of religious observance and instruction of his or her denomination. If a detention facility contains a sufficient number of juveniles of a given religion, one or more qualified representatives of that religion should be appointed or approved and allowed to hold regular services and to pay pastoral visits in private to juveniles at their request. Every juvenile should have the right to receive visits from a qualified representative of any religion of his or her choice, as well as the right not to participate in religious services and freely to decline religious education, counselling or indoctrination.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau, Detention of Migrants in an Irregular Situation, A/HRC/20/24
The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which apply to all categories of prisoners, both criminal and those imprisoned under any other non-criminal process, set out minimum standards for, inter alia, accommodation, personal hygiene, clothing, bedding, food, exercise, access to newspapers, books and religious advisers, communication with the outside world and medical services.
The Special Rapporteur calls on States to consider progressively abolishing the administrative detention of migrants. In the meantime, Governments should take measures to ensure respect for the human rights of migrants in the context of detention, including by:
(f) Applying the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners to migrants under administrative detention, including providing for the separation of administrative detainees from criminal detainees; ensuring an adequate standard of accommodation, including minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation; providing for adequate sanitary, bathing and shower installations; allowing administrative detainees to wear their own clothing, and provide facilities for their cleaning; a separate bed with clean bedding for each detainee; adequate food and drinking water; at least one hour of outdoor exercise daily; the right to communicate with relatives and friends and to have access to newspapers, books and religious advisers; ensuring the presence of at least one qualified medical officer who should have some knowledge of psychiatry, as well as a qualified dental officer; and ensuring the right to make a request or complaint to the central prison administration, judicial authorities or other proper authorities;
Detention guidelines: guidelines on the applicable criteria and standards relating to the detention of asylum-seekers and alternatives to detention
Guideline 9.5 .63
Asylum-seekers with disabilities must enjoy the rights included in these Guidelines without discrimination. This may require States to make “reasonable accommodations” or changes to detention policy and practices to match their specific requirements and needs. A swift and systematic identification and registration of such persons is needed to avoid arbitrary detention; and any alternative arrangements may need to be tailored to their specific needs, such as telephone reporting for persons with physical constraints. As a general rule, asylum-seekers with long-term physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments should not be detained. In addition, immigration proceedings need to be accessible to persons with disabilities, including where this is needed to facilitate their rights to freedom of movement.
European Prison Rules
Prisoners’ freedom of thought, conscience and religion shall be respected.
The prison regime shall be organised so far as is practicable to allow prisoners to practise their religion and follow their beliefs, to attend services or meetings led by approved representatives of such religion or beliefs, to receive visits in private from such representatives of their religion or beliefs and to have in their possession books or literature relating to their religion or beliefs.
Prisoners may not be compelled to practise a religion or belief, to attend religious services or meetings, to take part in religious practices or to accept a visit from a representative of any religion or belief.
As far as practicable the cultural practices of different groups shall be allowed to continue in prison.
Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas
Principle XV - Freedom of conscience and religion
Persons deprived of liberty shall have the right to freedom of conscience and of religion, including the right to profess, manifest, practice, maintain or change their religion, in line with their beliefs; the right to participate in religious and spiritual activities and to practice traditional rites; as well as the right to receive visits from religious or spiritual representatives.
Religious and spiritual diversity and plurality shall be recognized in places of deprivation of liberty, subject to the limitations that are strictly necessary to protect the rights of others or public health or morals, and maintain public order, internal security, and discipline in places of deprivation of liberty, as well as subject to other limitations permitted by law and international human rights law.
Extract from the 2nd General Report [CPT/Inf (92) 3] - Imprisonment
Naturally, the CPT is also attentive to the particular problems that might be encountered by certain specific categories of prisoners, for example: women, juveniles and foreigners.
Questions for monitors (18) Print
Are there any indications of discrimination against persons adhering to certain religions or not adhering to a religion within the prison?
Do detainees have the possibility of choosing and changing their religion in prison?
Are there indications of indoctrination or forcible religious conversions (either through official prison programmes or among detainees)? Are detainees required to participate in religious activities?
Are there restrictions placed on the right to exercise religion? If yes, for what reasons and are they justified?
Do disciplinary measures entail restrictions on the freedom to practice/not adhere to a religion?
Does the prison have appointed religious representatives for the main religions present among the detainee population? Is the number of chaplains proportionate to the number of detainees belonging to each religion?
Do chaplains of different religions have equal status (e.g. access to the same facilities)?
Can detainees receive visits in private from a religious representative of any religion if they request (including those religions for which there is no appointed chaplain)?
Do detainees have the opportunity to participate in regular services, religious meetings and festive occasions? Are adequate facilities made available for collective religious practices within the prison?
Are detainees able to keep in their possession religious books, symbols and objects? Are staff trained to recognise and respect these?
Do detainees have the possibility of observing the requirements of their religion, including praying, wearing specific clothing, grooming and washing as often as their religion requires?
Are detainees able to fast for religious reasons? How does the prison accommodate fasting detainees (e.g. providing warm food during non-fasting times)?
Are detainees able to access meals prepared according to the rites of their religion?
Are persons who do not observe a religion subject to dietary restrictions for religious reasons?
Do children and young detainees in prison have the possibility to choose, change and practice their religion, as well as to not adhere to a religion (on the same basis as adult detainees)? Are there any indications of religious indoctrination or forcible religious conversion of young detainees?
Do women have the same right to choose, change and practice their religion as men in prison (e.g. same access to places of worship and collective practices)?
Do persons belonging to minority and indigenous religions have the same opportunity to practice their religion as others? Are there any indications of discrimination, indoctrination or forcible conversion into mainstream religion(s)?
Do persons with disabilities have the same access to religious activities and places of worship as other detainees (any physical barriers to access)? Are there any indications of persons with mental disabilities being indoctrinated or forcibly converted into a religion in prison?