Adopted by the 52nd WMA General Assembly, Edinburgh, Scotland, October 2000
Revised by the 62nd WMA General Assembly, Montevideo, Uruguay, October 2011
and by the 73rd WMA General Assembly, Berlin, Germany, October 2022
The WMA Declaration of Lisbon on the Rights of the Patient states ‘Every person is entitled without discrimination to appropriate medical care’.
The Constitution of the World Health Organization states that “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”.
Persons deprived of liberty (“prisoners”) should receive the same standard of health care as people outside prisons. They have the same rights as all other people. This includes the right to humane treatment and appropriate medical care. The standards for the treatment of prisoners have been set down in a number of United Nations Declarations and Guidelines, in particular the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – known as the Nelson Mandela Rules in its 2015 revised version, they are supplemented by the UN Bangkok Rules on women.
The term “persons deprived of liberty” refers to all regardless of the reason for their detention as well as of their legal status, from pre-trial detainees to sentenced persons.
It is the responsibility of the states to guarantee the right to life and health of persons deprived of liberty. This implies caring for them with the aim that prison does not become a determining factor of communicable disease.
The relationship between physician and persons deprived of liberty is governed by the same ethical principles as that between the physician and any other patient. However, the particular prison setting can lead to tensions within the patient/physician relationship as a result of the physician potentially being subject to pressure from authorities and seeming to be hierarchically subordinate to his/her employer, the prison service, and of the general attitude of society towards persons deprived of liberty.
Beyond the States responsibilities to treat all persons deprived of liberty with respect for their inherent dignity and value as human beings, there are strong public health reasons for ensuring the adequate implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules. The high incidence of tuberculosis and other communicable diseases amongst prisoners in a number of countries reinforces the urgent need to consider public health as a critical element when designing new prison regimens, and for reforming existing penal and prison systems.
Individuals facing imprisonment are often from the most vulnerable sections of society. They may have had limited access to health care before imprisonment, may suffer worse health conditions that many other citizens and as a result may have a high risk of entering prison with undiagnosed, undetected and untreated health problems.
Overcrowding, lengthy confinement within tightly enclosed, poorly lit, badly heated and consequently poorly ventilated and often humid spaces are all conditions frequently associated with imprisonment and all of which contribute to the spread of communicable disease and ill-health. Where these factors are combined with poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition and limited access to adequate health care, prisons can represent a major public health challenge.
Keeping persons deprived of liberty in conditions that expose them to substantial medical risk, poses a serious humanitarian challenge. The most effective and efficient way to reduce disease transmission is to improve the prison environment.
It is the responsibility of states to dedicate sufficient resources to ensure adequate prison conditions, that prison health care is appropriate in relation to the size and needs of the prison population, and to define and implement sustainable health strategies to prevent communicable diseases transmission. The organization of health care in prison requires a suitable team of health personnel capable of detecting and treating communicable diseases as part of its essential mission to provide care and treatment to their patients in detention.
The increase in active tuberculosis in prison populations and the development of resistant, especially “multi–drug” and “extensively-drug” resistant forms of TB, as recognised by the World Medical Association in its Resolution on Tuberculosis, is reaching very high prevalence and incidence rates in prisons in some parts of the world. Likewise, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted prisons with outbreaks reported around the world. Other conditions, such as hepatitis C and HIV disease, pose transmission risks from blood-borne spread, exchange of body fluids. Overcrowded prison conditions also promote the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, while intravenous drug use contributes to the spread of HIV as well as hepatitis B and C.
Recalling its Declaration of Lisbon on the Rights of the Patient, the World Medical Association calls on all relevant actors to take the necessary measures to guarantee the highest attainable standard of health for persons deprived of liberty, in particular:
Governments, prison and health authorities
1. To protect the rights of persons deprived of liberty according to the various United Nations instruments relating to conditions of imprisonment, in particular the Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
2. To allocate the necessary resources to health care in prisons, proportionate to the number and needs of the persons deprived of liberty and including adequate funding for health personnel and appropriate level of staffing of such personnel.
3. To define and implement robust health strategies that ensure a safe and healthy prison environment, through vaccination, hygiene, surveillance and other measures to prevent transmission of communicable diseases.
4. To guarantee that persons deprived of liberty with an infectious illness are treated with dignity and that their rights to health care are respected, in particular that they are not isolated, or placed in solitary confinement, as a response to their infected status, without adequate access to health care and the appropriate medical treatment.
5. To ensure that the conditions of detention, at any stage from arrest to sentencing or once sentenced, do not contribute to the development, worsening or transmission of diseases.
6. To ensure that diagnosis and treatment of non-communicable chronic disease and acute non-communicable illness and/or injury is reasonably and adequately treated so as to not cause undue burden on health personnel or increase risk of communicable disease spread due to prisoners with decompensated illness or injury.
7. To ensure the appropriate planning for and provision of continuing care as essential elements of prison health care, coordination of health services within and outside prisons facilitates, including continuity of care and epidemiological monitoring of prisoner patients when they are released.
8. To ensure that, upon admission to or transfer to a different prison, individuals’ health status is reviewed within 24 hours of arrival to ensure continuity of care.
9. To avoid disruption of care within the institution, particularly when the prisoner is receiving opiate substitution treatment by continuing the prescribed treatment.
10. Imprisonment is unacceptable in cases where infection or the risk of transmission is the cause of deprivation of liberty. Imprisonment is not an effective way to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases, and further, it is a cause of concealment of the diagnosis due to fear, leading to greater aggregate dissemination.
11. To respect autonomy and responsibilities of physicians working in prisons who must observe principles of medical ethics to protect health of persons deprived of liberty.
12. To conduct independent and transparent investigations to prevent denial of health care to inmates in prison.
WMA constituent members and the medical profession
13. To work with national and local governments, and health and prison authorities to prioritize health and health care, including that for mental health issues, in prisons and to adopt strategies that ensure a safe and healthy prison environment.
14. In accordance with the ethical principles of the medical profession, to encourage physicians to report and document any deficiency in health care provision, leading to ill-treatments of persons deprived of liberty.
15. To support and protect physicians encountering difficulties as a result of their attempts to denounce deficiencies in prison health care provision.
16. To support improving prison conditions and prison systems from a viewpoint of health of persons deprived of liberty.
Physicians working in prisons
17. To report duly to the health authorities and professional organisations of their country any deficiency in health care, including that for mental health issues, provided to the persons deprived of liberty and any situation involving high epidemiological risk.
18. To follow national public health guidelines, where these are ethically appropriate, particularly concerning the mandatory reporting of infectious and communicable diseases.