If prisons represent the place where people in detention live, their cell and dormitory may be considered as their “home”. This is where they spend most of their time, at least at night, and often the entire day. The configuration and material conditions of their accommodation therefore represent essential aspects to alleviate the harmful effects of deprivation of liberty.

The material conditions of the accommodation should be comparable to average living standards in the outside world, which is generally far from being the case in prisons. The living conditions inside establishments must safeguard the dignity of the person if they are not to constitute a form of ill-treatment or torture.

The accommodation of detainees must respect the principle of separating people on remand from those who have been sentenced, men from women, and adults from children.

Architecture and design

The architecture of the place of detention must ensure that the living spaces are both safe and sound. Moreover, the design of these places must guarantee a minimum amount of privacy and contribute to the aim of rehabilitation. In practice, living conditions vary considerably from one country to another, but also from one establishment to another, in particular because of their size, state of wear, standard of cleanliness, or else because of the type of regime in operation.

The oldest establishments tend not to provide adequate living conditions, because of risks associated with poor sanitation, but also because of the way they were designed. The same is true of places which were not originally intended to be prisons but which were later converted as such. It can also happen that, because of lack of space within a prison, areas such as stock rooms or workshops are turned into cells, even though they do not fulfil satisfactory conditions for accommodation.

Newer establishments sometimes feature architecture that tends to dehumanise social relationships. Even if modern prisons often provide higher quality material conditions of accommodation, they tend to prioritise the need for security and a concern for economy to the detriment of rehabilitation objectives.

Noise disturbance, within the context of deprivation of liberty, may prove particularly hard to endure. The quality of the partitions or walls between the cells, as well as the doors and floor coverings, should guarantee a minimum level of sound-proofing, especially in establishments where detainees spend the majority of their time in their cell. Sometimes air vents are blocked by detainees because they are too noisy, thereby directly affecting the quality of air in the cells or dormitories.

Cells or dormitories?

International standards tend to encourage the use of individual cells at night, both for people on remand and for those who have been sentenced, although they recognise that in certain cases the authorities favour shared accommodation, in particular for cultural reasons. Even when that is the case, the number of detainees per shared cell should be limited and people sharing a dormitory should be carefully chosen in order to minimise the risk of abuse. As far as possible, detainees must be able to choose before being forced to share a cell with someone overnight.

Cultural factors do not, however, justify the existence of mega-dormitories, housing dozens of detainees or even more, where close proximity stamps out any possible privacy and leads to serious risks of abuse and violence. Moving detainees in and out a shared cell or dormitory, sometimes on a frequent basis, can unsettle and upset its occupants. In addition, when there are disturbances in the dormitories, it is more difficult for the authorities to avoid using force to put an end to it. Lastly, in very large dormitories the toilets are likely to be poorly maintained because of the heavy usage made of the shared facilities.

Standards recommend individual cell accommodation overnight primarily to give each person a place where they will be protected from the violence of others and to guarantee a minimum amount of privacy. This helps alleviate the constraints imposed by deprivation of liberty and facilitate eventual rehabilitation.

Size of cells and dormitories

Decent conditions of accommodation mean that detainees must have a minimum amount of living space within the prison. In an individual cell, the available space should be at least 7m2 (CPT, or 5.4m2 according to the ICRC). In shared cells and dormitories, the following minimum sizes should be respected: 10m2 for two detainees, 21m2 for five detainees, 35m2 for seven detainees and 60m2 for twelve detainees (CPT). In dormitories, the floor space available to each detainee should never be less than 4m2 (CPT, 3.4m2 according to the ICRC). This is simply a minimum standard to ensure that the conditions of detention themselves do not constitute a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The space available to each individual must be viewed alongside the length of time spent in the cell, the state of sanitation and other considerations that could impact negatively on the person’s situation. Moreover, the living space in the cell/dormitory includes not only the space for the bed, furniture and personal possessions, but also the space necessary for moving about and getting some exercise.

Considerations relating to available space must always be made alongside other factors, such as the state of sanitation of the area, the time spent out of the cell, and overcrowding.

Furniture and personalising the cells

Individual cells or those for two people must offer basic furniture in good condition including a bed, chair and table for each person, as well as a cupboard and/or set of shelves for each. A hammock cannot be considered a bed, and the bed must always have a mattress. Every bed must be at least 2m long and 0.8m wide (ICRC).

The space between the furniture must make it possible for the person to move around easily, do some exercise and work or study at his/her table. The furniture should be as nice and as ergonomic as possible. Detainees should be able to lock their authorised personal possessions and papers up in something that is closed.

In practice, it is often the case that the furnishings are insufficient and/or in poor condition, and that cupboards and places to store things are limited to a few simple shelves, at best. Detainees sometimes find themselves obliged to keep their things on their bed, or even on the floor. In some cases, because of a lack of furniture, detainees have to make their own shelving out of cardboard in order to have somewhere to keep their personal possessions.

The cell represents the detainees’ living space. It is therefore important, especially for people serving long sentences, to be able to decorate it with personal possessions, including pictures and photographs. Personalising the cell with decoration and visual stimuli should not only be permitted but actively encouraged. The staff should also show respect for the personal possessions and decorations of the detainees.

Respect for privacy

Prison is by definition a place where people’s privacy and private life are restricted. Restrictions on one’s freedom to come and go, security requirements, continuous surveillance, preventing escape attempts, and the prevention of violence all severely limit the detainees’ right to a private life. In spite of all these restrictions, the right to privacy must be guaranteed while taking account of the demands of communal living and of the mandate of establishments which deprive people of their liberty. Conditions of accommodation are therefore closely linked to the safeguarding of privacy.

Having an individual cell at night plays a large part in ensuring this essential minimum amount of privacy. Even if surveillance of the cell by a spyhole, including putting the light on at night, is practised as part of security requirements, such a practice should never be carried out on a discriminatory basis or for any other purpose than that of surveillance. In addition, the toilets should not be visible from the spyhole, the window in the door or from video surveillance cameras.

When searches of cells are carried out, even when these are justified and necessary to keep order and prevent escape attempts, efforts should always be made to limit their impact on people’s privacy, and staff in charge of searches must show respect for the personal possessions of the detainees.

Accommodation and overcrowding

Situations of overcrowding have a direct and detrimental effect on the quality of accommodation of the detainees. As soon as the maximum capacity is exceeded, the individual space of each detainee is reduced, with the risk that dormitories soon become overcrowded, detainees are sleeping on the floor and individual cells are turned into shared cells. Such situations decrease privacy and increase tensions and the risk of abuse and violence between detainees. The most vulnerable people are at particular risk. The minimum amount of privacy can no longer be guaranteed and the conditions of accommodation risk not to respect human dignity. Situations of overcrowding combined with unhealthy conditions in the accommodation and a lack of space may constitute a form of ill-treatment or even torture.

Detainees in situations of vulnerability

When the infrastructure or capacity of the place of detention do not allow for the provision of an individual cell for the whole prison population, access to individual cells at night should be given first to detainees who are considered the most vulnerable to abuse. The placing of a person in an individual cell, when this is not the norm, should not, however, be imposed and should always be done in consultation with the people involved.


The design of new places of detention should always take account of the needs of people with reduced mobility. Special cells require considerable modifications which can only be satisfactorily designed when the construction plans are drawn up. In older establishments, reasonable accommodation must be made not only to provide the necessary equipment, but also to make it possible to use a wheelchair in the cell. The size of special cells must therefore allow for accessing the toilet in a wheelchair without removing the door. The toilet must be adapted for people with reduced mobility.


Children in detention must always be separated from adults. Their accommodation must comply with the aims of rehabilitation and must satisfy security measures with as few restrictions as possible. Children should sleep in individual cells, or in small dormitories, while taking account of cultural factors and local norms. Particular account must be taken of their need for privacy in the arrangements for their accommodation. It is also important for material conditions to meet their need for sensory stimulation. 

When it is not possible to provide an individual cell at night for the whole of the prison population, this should be offered as a priority to LGBTI people, who are more exposed to the risk of abuse from fellow detainees, as long as this is what they wish. Transgender people should not be allocated to a male or female section (or prison) solely on the basis of their biological gender. Any allocation of accommodation must be done taking account of their views, and must take into consideration their perceived gender identity as well as any treatment being followed with a view to possible gender re-assignation.


Women in detention must always be separated from men. The conditions of their accommodation, especially in the case of pregnant women or breast-feeding mothers, must take account of their specific needs. Adjustments must be made for mothers detained with young children, in order to make the conditions of their accommodation as convenient as possible and must above all take account of the needs of the child.


The authorities may be inclined to arrange separate accommodation areas for detainees of different ethnic origins or nationalities in order to prevent violence. Such separation must not be routine, must be periodically reviewed and must not be done to the detriment of any one particular group (such as worse accommodation for a specific group). Even if separation may prove temporarily inevitable to prevent violence, the prison must not contribute to the stigmatisation or exclusion of certain minorities.