Criminal Justice and Health

Individuals in orange jump suits protest with signs outside a prison

Activists calling for humane conditions in South African prisons. Photo Credit: Sonke Gender Justice.

International human rights law recognizes the right of everyone—including incarcerated people—to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. But incarcerated people often receive inadequate and sometimes no access to health services. Rights abuses in prisons contribute to the spread of diseases and ill health, and incarcerated people are a key population for diseases such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. Meanwhile, discriminatory criminal laws result in the disproportionate incarceration of already marginalized people, such as the LGBTQI, the poor and undereducated, and racial, ethnic, and other minorities.

The Human Rights Program has produced scholarship and developed guidance for practitioners on health and penal systems. Our previous work in this area aimed to improve conditions of detention and treatment of incarcerated people. With a global interest but a particular emphasis on Southern Africa, we have conducted research and advised advocates on impact litigation to tackle issues such as acute overcrowding in pre-trial detention, and to strengthen monitoring and oversight mechanisms. Our staff also conducted research to guide the implementation of gender and sexuality-sensitive human rights standards for the treatment of women and LGBTQI people in criminal justice systems.

The Program’s scholarship also sought to critically examine the reliance on criminal justice solutions to complex social problems. Our projects aimed to inform theory and practice on criminal law reform to reduce criminalization that results in human rights abuses. Our interests in this area placed an emphasis on laws that are used to punish diverse expressions of identity, morality, sexuality, and bodily autonomy. Former Associate Director of the Academic Program Emily Nagisa Keehn led this initiative.

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