Files and records

Key Elements

There are different types of records kept in prisons, and each performs a particular function. The office register and/or the prison records, the daily log (that contains all information linked to daily life in the establishment) as well as individual detainee files are essential documents in order to prevent abuse and ill-treatment as well as prevent from enforced disappearances. Medical records are fundamental in determining how allegations of ill-treatment are dealt with and processed and to generally evaluate detainees’ medical care. Disciplinary records also serve as important safeguards in terms of preventing violations of basic human rights and ensuring proper care of detained persons.

Well-kept records that contain the kind of information required for the effective protection of detainees’ rights also contribute to efficient management of places of detention and better individual care. Personnel should be trained to be able to process the information, and keep records, as well as be kept informed of the purpose of these records. Such training should include consideration for the respect of people’s privacy.

Types of records and their degree of sophistication can vary considerably from one place to another but a lack of resources should never justify an absence or badly kept records. More and more countries have turned to computerised records allowing better tracking and optimised data processing but this raises questions about access, storage and information traceability.

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Types of records

The names of records as well as their content can vary widely from one place to another. The essential point is that certain key information be listed in a systematic, understandable, consistent, and easily-accessible way while maintaining the right to privacy for those concerned. Records should be standardized and not unnecessarily duplicate information contained elsewhere.

- The office register and/or the prison records should include a set of data concerning newly admitted people and their placement in the institution but also the identity of the police escort and its place of origin. On this basis, it can be demonstrated that the detention is lawful and arbitrary detention can be prevented. Records of this nature must also include all information regarding transfers and releases.

- The function of the daily log or book of observation is to list all aspects relevant to daily life in the establishment. It’s the type of document that best reflects everyday life in an establishment and, if necessary, should enable the reconstruction of the circumstances of an incident. Usually, entries and exits, searches, placement in disciplinary cells, etc., can be found in the daily log.

- Individual detainee files are essential to guarantee proper care, particularly with a view to the person’s rehabilitation. Normally, individual records a detail detainees’ stay throughout the entire detention period and are transferred in the event the detainee is sent to another establishment. Other than the person’s identity and legal situation, individual files may also contain information linked to detention regime, behaviour, incidents, participation in training and activities etc. This information, which is usually recorded by trained personnel, such as social workers or probation officers, is concerned with the person’s social and professional rehabilitation. This information should never be used against those concerned and access to this information should be restricted to certain duly authorised people. Medical records should be kept separate from individual files.

-Medical records are essential to guarantee medical care for detainees. They should also include details of any possible care administered after allegations of ill-treatment. Therefore, they are a major safeguard for detainees. Medical records should be protected by medical confidentiality. Detainees should have access to the information contained in their medical record.

Institutions can keep numerous other types of records. Some are put in place by the central administration and others by the management of the place in question. These records vary greatly from one place to another but all can contain useful information and contribute to transparency and the obligation of accountability. Some examples of records are:

  • disciplinary area records
  • body search records
  • records concerning means of constraint
  • register of external monitoring and internal inspections
  • register of detainees’ money or valuables
  • register of facilities checks (including cell searches)
  • weapons register

The obligation to keep records should be prescribed by law and accompanied by a decree of implementation in order to facilitate practical usage.

Purpose of keeping records

Regardless of the type of record, there are three main purposes for maintaining records in prison:

1) Keeping records contributes to good management of the institution. Rigorously listing the identity of all detainees, admittances and releases, comings and goings, transfers, placements by type of regime, disciplinary measures etc., allows prison and penitentiary administration authorities to have a general overview as well as control over prisons and the persons detained therein. Records, especially those that are computerised and linked to central administration, can help develop prison policies based on concrete data and help to remedy critical issues such as penitentiary overcrowding. Registers also permit tracking detainees’ legal situation and their behaviour throughout their detention. This information is essential for decisions pertaining to conditional release or other sentence modifications.

2) Rigorous record keeping is a fundamental guarantee of the protection of detainees’ basic rights. First and foremost for prison management and penitentiary authorities it is a way to prevent the risk of forced disappearances or arbitrary detention because the registers should allow for detainees to be rapidly located. It is for this reason that registers should very precisely note all movement to or from the establishment and list the identity of all personnel involved in all transfers as well as the places of origin and destination. Similarly, registers should serve as a safeguard against all abusive practices and serve as evidence to confirm or invalidate allegations concerning abusive practices. If registers are well-kept it is possible to monitor the effects of the use of force, means of constraint, strip searches, or confiscation of personal belongings. In such cases, registers constitute an essential safeguard for detainees.

3) Records, and in particular detainee files, help optimise data management with a view to individualised care and socio-professional rehabilitation. Elements such as participation in training or activities, refusal to attend a workshop or incidentsin which the person is involved should be included in the file and help guide professionals involved. Such effective tracking helps favour “dynamic security”, rooted in prevention, interaction and familiarity with detainees. Considering the personal nature of the information contained in these files, only authorised persons should have access and the information should be destroyed within a certain time period after the release of the person concerned.

Minimal information that should be included in registers

The minimal information that must imperatively appear in detention records aimed at preventing forced disappearances or arbitrary detention (Article 17.3 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearances) is the following:

  • The identity of the person deprived of liberty
  • The date, hour and place where the person has been deprived of liberty and the authority that instituted it
  • The authority that decided upon the deprivation of liberty and the reasons behind it
  • The authority in charge of deprivation of liberty
  • The place of deprivation of liberty, the date and time of admission and the authority in charge
  • Aspects regarding the health of the person deprived of liberty
  • In case of death during detention, the circumstances and cause of death and the destination of the remains of the deceased
  • The date and time of release or transfer to another place of detention, the destination and the authority responsible for the transfer

To efficiently prevent other types of abuse and violations of human rights as well as for good management it is necessary for other information to be recorded, regardless of the type of register: the detainee’s health (including possible allegations of ill-treatment, medicine prescribed and administered, hospitalisations etc…) disciplinary measures (including the use of restraints), incidents involving use of force, body or cell searches, goods and personal effects, information concerning contact with the outside world as well as complaints and their follow-up. It is also important to be able to easily identify the people entering information in the registers.


It is essential to ensure records are kept. How these records are kept is just as important. Incomplete or poorly kept records may not just be pointless; they can conceal cases of abuse. Staff must be trained and urged to complete records correctly, systematically filling in all the different sections with the most accurate data possible as well as register events in chronological order. A late registration of data can cause suspicion, be it justified or not. For this reason, detention officers must fill in the records as items worth noting arise.

Non-existing registers or incomplete and poorly-kept records can also contribute to slowing down the process and even lead to failures of the judicial system. It can also lead to cases of excessive length of provisional detention. People in provisional detention are also at risk of not being aware of the charges they face. There is also a risk that they might not be kept separate from sentenced inmates.

Finally, poorly-kept records or records that have not been updated may mean that the information based on which decisions regarding inmates are taken is not reliable and thus hinders sentence planning and rehabilitation programs. Similarly, the lack of information on risk assessment can lead to arbitrary decisions or risks to other inmates.

In some places, limited resources are sometimes used to justify the non-existence of records or poor record keeping. While some types of sophisticated records, including computerised records, may represent significant investments, good record keeping depends primarily on clear and efficient procedures, appropriate training and rigorous filing. All relevant personnel should be well-trained in the use of registers and training should be held each time a new register or records system is introduced.

It is also important that the records are subject to hierarchical control, either by an officer of the registry, the director of the prison, or the central penitentiary administration.

Access and storage of information

Registers such as daily logs are usually filed by different people. It is therefore important to check the identity of any person entering information in a registry. Access to other records should be restricted and controlled, such as the prison office register/ prison record which should be kept by an appointed official. Individual records should not be freely accessible by all. In order to respect individuals’ privacy, the institution’s rules should clearly state which personnel have access to what information. Medical records should be accessible only to medical personnel and to external independent monitoring bodies.

Registers are written records of what happens in prison and must be filed in a way that enables all steps to be retraced. For this reason, all information must be traceable, which requires it to be rigorously held. The precise time of events and the identity of the persons concerned (including the persons responsible for entering information in the registry) must always be specified. A storage/ archive system where information can consistently be filed and easily located is necessary. In the case of computerised records, security access requires special care. Likewise, physical servers must be kept safe. The length of time data is stored once a person has been released should be regulated by legislation to prevent people being "on file" indefinitely.

Detainees should also have access to certain information pertaining to them and should be able to request that inaccurate or obsolete data be corrected to prevent decisions being taken against them solely on the basis of unfavourable information present in the registers. Information about the dangerousness of the detainee should therefore be regularly reviewed.

It is therefore essential that there is strict control of records and compliance with procedures. A hierarchical list of personnel and corresponding responsibilities should be defined in the regulations.

Discrimination and groups in situations of vulnerability

The existence of records and their proper management contribute to improving the protection of all detainees from all forms of abuse due to discrimination. For instance, registers can be used to verify that the principle of separation of certain categories of prisoners (accused/ convicted, adults/ children, men/ women) is applied in practice. Records must also be able to be used during investigations into allegations of ill-treatment, abuse or arbitrary decisions motivated by discrimination. With the agreement of the persons concerned, recording certain sensitive information should also allow people to receive appropriate treatment or special services.


Whenever a woman is admitted to a facility, the name and age of all her children should, if necessary, be recorded in a file. If the children do not live with their mother, information about where they are and the person in charge of their care must also be entered in the register. Access to this information must be limited and controlled. Access to this information and its use should not be detrimental to the child.


Given their specific vulnerability, record keeping is particularly important for minors. Registers concerning them must include their identity, the facts they are accused of, date and time of admission, as well as transfers and releases. It is also important to record all notifications to parents or to people who were/are responsible for them at the time of the alleged crime.

It is important that the records not mention the sexual orientation and/ or gender identity of a person in custody unless the person expressly wants this information to appear and that this information is not used against them. Recording this information should not mean that the other inmates are automatically separated or their rights restricted. For transgender people, information contained in the records concerning gender identity should not be based solely on the biological sex of the persons concerned.


Foreigners or persons from a minority who do not speak the local language at the time of admission should not be discriminated against. If necessary, those in charge of records must call an interpreter to ensure that the information entered in the register is correct. In some contexts, the nationality and ethnic background of people is recorded for statistical purposes. This information should not be held against the persons concerned. Its sole purpose is to better manage public policies.


The information contained in records and files relating to individual persons living with disabilities should never be used in a discriminatory manner. On the contrary, it should instead be used to direct them to centres and services best suited to their needs or, to ensure reasonable accommodation is provided in order for them to be treated on an equal footing with other detainees.

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Questions for monitors

What types of files and records exist in the place of detention?

Are records computerized, hand-written or a mix of both?

Do the types of prison records vary from one place of detention to another?

Does the central government have access to the records?

Are custody records kept rigorously? Is the information contained in the registers entered in chronological order? Are there indications that information has been deleted or added afterward?

Is there identical information in several records?

Is the chain of responsibility for the conduct and control of records clear and respected? Is it enshrined in law and/ or regulation?

Does the information contained in the records and especially in individual files help prevent the risk of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention?

Is the information contained in the records and especially in individual files restricted to certain authorised persons?

Do detainees have access to the information contained in the records?

Who has access to the medical records?

In the case where records are computerised, how is access to information controlled?

Can confidential data be destroyed after a certain period of time after release? Is this enshrined in legislation?

Does information contained in the individual files provide information about care and adequate follow-up of people’s conditions? Who oversees the files and who has access?


For female prisoners with children, do the admission registers contain information on the age and name of their children, where they are and who is responsible?


Do the children’s records include notifications to parents or those in charge?

Do files and records include information about sexual orientation and gender identity of inmates? If so, how is this information used? Is this type of information recorded with the consent of the persons concerned?


On admission, are foreigners or minorities that do not speak the local language informed of the content with the help of an interpreter?


Do records include information on the nationality of individuals and their ethnicity? If so, how is this information used?


Do records include information about possible physical or mental disabilities of detainees? How is this information used?

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