Access to external information

Key Elements

The right of detainees to access the outside world implies regular and meaningful access to news, information and entertainment that is freely available outside detention. Television, radio, newspapers, books and periodicals are all a means for detainees to stay in contact with developments in society, build or develop knowledge, skills or qualifications, or provide a diversion or relaxation during their time in detention. Maintaining this link through regular access to a range of mediums can be an important part of rehabilitation or preparing for release. Access may be restricted on disciplinary grounds but should be done for limited periods and in an open and transparent way.

Because of its high value to detainees there is a real risk that this right of access can be subject to unfair rules, corruption or stand over tactics by other detainees or prison authorities. There is also a risk that material that poses no security risk but has non-mainstream content (for example LGBTI material) can be subject to unwarranted censorship. Clear rules around access that are adhered to in practice are a means to help ensure detainees are able to fairly and adequately stay in touch with the outside world through access to external information.

Print section


Whilst incarcerated, detainees retain the right to receive information about the outside world. This can be through regular access to radio, television, newspapers and other periodicals, and access to a library or library service for written, and in some cases audio and visual material. Maintaining this link to the outside world is important for detainees, to provide intellectual stimulation and alleviate boredom, enable them to pursue interests and hobbies, and to prepare for their reinsertion into society on release.

Access to television

Having access to a television is an extremely important issue for many detainees. Television is a link to the outside world, it is a source of entertainment, it alleviates boredom and it is something over which a detainee can have some control in their lives (for example, decisions around whether to watch, what to watch, and to some extent when to watch).  Because of this, access (or lack of access) to television can be a major cause of tension or conflict in a prison environment, and thus detaining authorities should establish clear, fair and transparent rules around access.

Televisions may be placed in communal areas to enable all detainees to have access to information, and in many countries, detainees can also have televisions or radios in their cells.

Access to television may be suspended on disciplinary grounds but suspension should be for a short period and subject to constant review.

When televisions are not provided free of charge by the detaining authorities and are sold/rent within the detention facilities, efforts should be made to ensure that the price is accessible and – at the very least – that they are not more expensive than in the community.

Access to other media (newspaper, journals, radio)

Detainees should have regular access to newspapers at the expense of the State. If there is a large group of detainees with other language needs, authorities should provide alternative language newspapers. Detainees should also have the option to subscribe to periodical magazine/journals at their own expense and receive them within a reasonable time after their publication date.

Radio is a relatively cheap and accessible way for detainees to keep in contact with the outside world. If not all detainees have the means or are not permitted to have a radio in their own cell, there should be a radio in communal areas for detainees to listen to.

Detainees should also have access to a library or library service that holds publications in a range of subject areas, including legal information and resources. Where practicable, prison libraries should hold publications in minority languages of the prison population, as well as material accessible to those with a disability.

Privilege system and corruption

Access to radio, television, newspaper and periodicals can be susceptible to corruption, stand over, bribes, and abuse of privileges. In some cases, prison guards perpetrate the corruption. In other cases it is other prisoners, often through informal governance systems, that perpetrate the corrupt practices. Where other prisoners perpetrate such practices, the detaining authorities are generally aware of the corruption and either explicitly consent to it, or acquiescence through turning a blind eye to the practice. It should be noted however, that the ultimate responsibility is on the State to ensure that all detainees have basic access to external information, and that the system of privileges is run in an open and transparent manner and free from corruption.

Censorship of external information

External information should only be censored on an exceptional basis and for the legitimate reason that the material threatens the security and order of the prison, is illegal or could be used to commit illegal acts, or could humiliate or offend others. Material in prisons can be censored for unjustified reasons, for example, expressing unorthodox political, minority, racial or religious views. There should not be any moral censorship beyond that which is the norm in the country.

Where external information is censored, it must be done for legitimate reasons (for example, on grounds of safety, security and order) and must be done in a way that is transparent to avoid actual or perceived bias. 

Access to new media

Allowing detainees to access the internet can provide up to date information from a variety of sources about current events in the outside world and detainees can learn important IT literacy skills that are often very useful in day to day life after release.  Authorities should have in place appropriate safeguards and technical control measures to ensure that detainees do not access inappropriate or offensive websites or use the internet to plan illicit activity.

Segregation and solitary confinement

Where detainees are segregated from the prison population for reason of protection or punishment, they should still have equal access to external information. Access to external information at this time is likely to be particularly important for detainees to reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Access to external information for groups in a situation of vulnerability

Detaining authorities should be mindful that a range of external information and library materials that meets the interests of female detainees are provided. Care should be taken to assess the genuine interests of women detainees and avoid gender stereotyping (for example, only providing womens’ magazines as reading material).

It is often the case that material / publications relating specifically to LGBTI groups / interests may be disproportionately censored because it is different from dominant culture, even where there the material poses no risks to security etc. Detaining authorities should not censor unless there are legitimate ground to do so and avoid blanket bans of LGBTI-orientated publications.


Where possible, foreign detainees and detainees from minorities, including indigenous people, should have access to current affairs and news material in their native language, including books in the library. These detainees should also have the option to subscribe to specialist periodicals, including those in their own language.


Where possible, detainees with disabilities should have access to current affairs and news material in their native language, including books in the library. These detainees should also have the option to subscribe to specialist periodicals, including those adapted to their disabilities (eg. materials in Braille, large prints or easier language).


It is important that children detainees are able to access external information in an age appropriate format and content. For younger children this may be cartoons or child-appropriate entertainment shows, for teenagers it could mean teen magazines. Detaining authorities should ensure that younger children are not exposed to television or magazines that are not appropriate for their age.

Print sectionPrint section

Questions for monitors

What access do detainees have to the media (type, hours of access, placement of TV/radio/newspapers, free or user-pays)? 

Are there restrictions? If so, are they reasonable, and is there a clear, publicized policy on this?


If there are children or young people detained, are they able to access age appropriate material in various formats?


Are indigenous detainees, ethnic minorities and foreigners able to access external information of that meets their interests and language needs?

Is there a library or library service? What are the conditions of access? What is the nature and extent of material available through the library?

Is there a clear and appropriate policy on censorship of external information that is adhered to in practice? Is it done on a case by case basis rather than blanket exclusion of publications?


What sorts of arrangements are made for detainees with a disability in accessing external information?

To what extent do NGOs and community groups work inside the prison? Is contact between NGOs and detainees promoted and facilitated?

Is there a system of lay visitors in place? Are all detainees who want to access the visitor able to effectively do so?

Print section